Taxpayer Funding of Religion

Florida Exploits COVID Public School Health Policies To Expand Voucher Scheme

  Samantha Sokol

If this pandemic has taught public school supporters anything, it’s that school voucher proponents will take advantage of any opportunity to drain public funds from public schools and funnel it to private, religious schools. For example, last year, former President Donald Trump and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos exploited the pandemic to promote private school vouchers paid for with COVID relief funds. And in 2021, several state legislatures, including Georgia, Illinois, and Colorado, considered bills to give private school vouchers to students whose public schools could not offer in-person instruction due to the pandemic.

The latest attempt to exploit the pandemic to expand ballooning voucher programs is currently under way in Florida. On Aug. 6, Florida’s State Board of Education unanimously voted to allow students to receive a voucher to attend a private school if their public school district requires certain health and safety measures, such as requiring kids to wear masks. Any student who does not wish to comply with mask wearing, COVID testing or quarantining may receive taxpayer dollars to pay for private school tuition.

How did we get here? It started with a standoff over masks in public schools. Kids in Florida wore masks last school year without incident. But on July 30 – acting against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) issued an executive order barring public school districts from requiring masks. Given that Florida’s COVID surge is at an all-time high, and children have not been spared, some district superintendents pushed back. Officials in four districts, including Broward, the second largest in the state, announced that they would keep mask mandates in place. In response, DeSantis threatened to withhold funding from public school districts with mask mandates. But the districts are holding strong.

DeSantis decided to try another route to defund public schools. The governor and the Florida Board of Education worked together to adopt a rule change that allows students who oppose masks to get a school voucher under the “Hope Scholarship” program. Since 2018, the program has spent an estimated $40 million per year on private school vouchers for students who have been bullied in public schools. DeSantis’ rule change adds so-called “COVID-19 harassment” – including something as simple as asking a student to wear a mask, take a COVID test, practice social distancing or quarantine – to the definition of bullying. The result: any student who does not want to comply with COVID protocols in public school can get a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend private school.

This voucher program should be suspended, not expanded. First, it doesn’t even achieve its intended goal of protecting kids from bullying. The voucher actually strips students of important federal and state protections. For example, public schools must adhere to the state’s Jeffrey Johnson Act, which requires that they have anti-bullying protections in place, and federal civil rights laws require that public schools prevent discrimination. Private schools that accept vouchers do not adhere to these laws. The bill simply forces bullied students out of the public school system and into schools with fewer protections, letting the bully, who faces no consequences and stays in their school, win. Even if this program could help kids who are bullied, it’s deeply insulting to those children facing relentless abuse, trauma and violence that the Board of Education has now reclassified having to follow COVID protocols as “bullying.”

Kids who accept this voucher aren’t likely to receive a good education, either. Studies across the country show that vouchers like the Hope Scholarship do not improve student achievement. A study of another Florida voucher program found that voucher students showed no gains in math or reading, and even saw their standardized test scores decline.

Additionally, the expansion of this voucher program to more children won’t end the COVID pandemic or keep kids healthier. COVID doesn’t discriminate between public schools, private schools and religious schools: it spreads equally at them all. This rule change will herd vulnerable kids into private schools with little oversight and a history of violating health and safety protocols. A 2017 investigation by the Orlando Sentinel found that at least eight Florida voucher schools submitted falsified fire and health reports to the state. If these private schools couldn’t be trusted to follow basic health protocols pre-pandemic, there’s no reason to believe they’ll protect kids now.

Unfortunately, several other states are considering following Florida’s lead in expanding vouchers for students to avoid mask mandates. In Arkansas, lawmakers recently introduced SB 2, a bill to allow students to opt out of their public school if they don’t agree with mask or COVID-related policies and receive funding to attend a different public school, private school, virtual school or for homeschooling. And Tennessee’s House Speaker Cameron Sexton threatened to convene a special session to create private school voucher legislation if school districts issue mask mandates, close physical school buildings or segregate vaccinated students.

Instead of solving the public health and education crises at hand, these lawmakers are pursuing private school vouchers instead. As Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” For voucher proponents, the COVID pandemic is the perfect opportunity to exploit a crisis for their goal of funneling public money to private schools. We must fight back to protect public education and pursue evidence-based public health policies to protect our students.

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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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