The Florida School Boards Association is facing some pushback from within its own ranks for moving to end the nation’s largest private school program program.
In recent days, three local school board members – Jason Fischer from Duval County, Jeff Bergosh from Escambia County and Dale Simchick from Indian River County – all weighed in with op-eds in their local newspapers. All three criticized the lawsuit that the FSBA and others filed Aug. 28 against the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which, if successful, could dramatically curb educational options for tens of thousands of low-income families.
The 13-year-old program, which never faced a standalone legal challenge until now, provides scholarships for low-income students to attend more than 1,400 participating private schools. It is expected to serve nearly 70,000 students this school year, more than 70 percent of them minorities. The program is administered by scholarship funding organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.
The suit “literally asks a judge to uproot these 67,000 students from schools that appear to be working for them, leaving particularly urban districts in the position of scrambling to find room for them,” Simchick wrote on TCPalm.com, which serves Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties. “This feels more like a temper tantrum than a strategy for helping disadvantaged children.”
In his piece for the Pensacola News Journal, Bergosh quoted letters he received from parents in support of the program, then wrote: “Instead of listening to biased, self-obsessed labor unions and other special interest lobbying entities, I’m listening to my constituents; I’m in agreement with them and together we are on the right side of this issue. I hope Florida legislators and other education leaders with courage will listen to students, parents, and taxpayers that benefit from this worthwhile program, too.”
It’s unclear how much dissent there may be amongst other rank-and-file school board members. The FSBA leadership did not consult members before voting in June to proceed with the suit, which also includes the Florida Education Association, Florida PTA, Florida NAACP and other groups as plaintiffs.
School board members who publicly support the broadest array of school choice options, including vouchers, are still uncommon. But there are signs of change, as evidence emerges about the academic and financial benefits of options like tax credit scholarships, and as more and more parents line up for alternatives. This year, more than 120,000 applications were started for tax credit scholarship before Step Up stopped the application process July 15.
“So what’s the problem?” asked Fischer in the Florida Times Union. “Sadly, it involves turf and power. If we truly wanted what was best for our kids, we wouldn’t care what kind of school they succeeded in — only that they succeeded. It’s past time for all of us to put aside the fights we’re having over school types, whether district or charter or private or virtual, and focus on the bigger problems that continue to fester.”