Talk about irony.
The head of the Florida teachers union – which is suing to kill the nation’s largest private school choice program – said this week that one of Florida’s biggest educational voucher programs led to improvements in student learning, and strongly suggested the program be given more state money.
Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall was referring to the state’s Voluntary PreKindergarten (VPK) program. It’s a government-funded voucher. It cost the state nearly $400 million last year alone. And it allowed 125,000 students to attend private institutions, including 27,000 at faith-based providers.
McCall’s voucher support came via this Context Florida op-ed, which slammed a Florida Chamber of Commerce report praising the state’s education reforms, particularly in terms of regulatory accountability. She shrugged them off and pointed instead to two union-backed policies: shrinking class sizes and VPK.
“Both have accomplished more to improve student learning than most of the policies advocated in the Chamber report,” McCall wrote. And about VPK in particular, she added, the chamber ignores the fact that “Florida’s prekindergarten per-student funding is among the lowest in the nation, leading not surprisingly to pre-K programs that are inferior to those in most states.”
McCall’s comments would be noteworthy even if her union wasn’t trying to kill Florida’s tax credit scholarship, which serves 78,000 low-income students (and is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog). But the lawsuit, McCall v. Scott, just makes them that much more surreal.
It argues tax credit scholarships are unconstitutional because they violate two separate provisions in the Florida Constitution – one that that calls for a “uniform” system of public schools, and another that bars state money from flowing to religious institutions. But if tax credit scholarships are unconstitutional on those grounds, how can VPK vouchers not be?
Money under the tax credit program never reaches the state treasury. Companies make voluntary donations to private non-profits, which then grant scholarships to low-income children. Their parents then take the money to private schools. Under the VPK program, money flows directly from the state treasury to some of the same schools.
The union and its allies in the lawsuit are seldom questioned about their selectivity, even though it begs for scrutiny. As other folks have written, Florida has five privately operated parental choice programs in PreK-12: charter schools, McKay scholarships, tax credit scholarships, VPK vouchers and Gardiner Scholarships (formerly the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts). It also has higher-education vouchers that allow students to attend faith-based colleges and universities, including the Bright Futures scholarship, which is more popular than Snickers and Skittles combined.
So given McCall’s latest comments, how can we not ask again: Why is the union only suing the option that’s available only to low-income kids?
At last month’s scholarship rally in the state capital with Martin Luther King III, Julio Fuentes, president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, noted the discrepancy before the crowd of 10,000 and offered one answer: “Because our opponents think if you don’t have a lot of money, you won’t fight back. They don’t think you’re smart enough, or tough enough, or connected enough. They think you’ll roll over.”
Anyone got a better answer?
Step Up For Students Public Affairs Manager Patrick Gibbons contributed to this report.