Invisible gorillas aplenty in Florida education debates

Ron Matus

Editor’s note: Misinformation abounds across the education choice landscape, adding confusion to an already complex issue. The redefinED team is dedicated to shining a light and providing the facts. Today’s post debunks an oft-repeated misconception: The manner in which the new Family Empowerment Scholarship is funded is unprecedented, unconstitutional, and at odds with how the state defines public education. You can see more myth busting here, or click the link at the top right-hand corner of this page.    

In the famous “invisible gorilla” experiment devised by research psychologist Christopher Chabris and experimental psychologist Daniel Simons, viewers were asked to count how many times people in a video passed basketballs to each other. As it turned out, half were so focused on the task they failed to see somebody in a gorilla costume walk into the middle of the scene, turn to the camera and thump his chest.

At the risk of being an armchair psychologist, I wonder if some of this “inattentional blindness” is at play in Florida’s debates over public education. For example, a stack of evidence shows Florida public schools have made significant progress over the past 20 years – yet so little of that evidence makes its way into the news.

I think I see a particularly big gorilla walking through the scrum over Florida’s newest choice scholarship. You wouldn’t know it from the criticism and coverage, but taxpayers in the Sunshine State have, for years if not decades, been spending billions of dollars for tuition at private and faith-based schools. How odd that most of these school choice programs are peachy and popular complements to public education, but a few are somehow accelerants for the apocalypse.

The general drift of opposition to the new Family Empowerment Scholarship, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law May 9, is this: It’s unprecedented, unconstitutional, and at odds with how we’ve come to define public education. What DeSantis proposed, reporters at one paper wrote, was “a major departure from the way the state has funded public schools for generations.” “A dramatic — and some say illegal — shift of taxpayer money from public schools to students bound for private or parochial classrooms,” wrote another. “A completely different animal from the other voucher programs,” wrote one opinions editor.

Maybe they missed the gorilla?

Since 2005, Florida has spent $5.4 billion on its Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program. Over the years, about 80 percent of participating schools have been private; about 17 percent have been faith-based. Assuming the students are proportionally divided, that’d be $4.4 billion in state money that ended up at private schools, with more than $900 million to faith-based schools.

Since 2006, Florida has spent more than $2 billion on McKay Scholarships, private school scholarships for students with disabilities. (McKay started as a pilot in 1999 and went statewide in 2001.) About 63 percent of schools participating in McKay are faith-based. Assuming McKay students are proportionally divided, that’d be $1.3 billion in state money that ended up at faith-based schools.

Since 2001, Florida has spent $1.5 billion on its Effective Access to Student Education grant (formerly known as the Florida Resident Access Grant). That’s a 40-year-old scholarship for students who choose to attend private colleges and universities. I didn’t catalog which EASE-accepting institutions are faith-based. But Ave Maria University, The Baptist College of Florida and Southeastern University (formerly South-Eastern Bible College and Southeastern College of the Assemblies of God) are among them.

About 1 in 10 Bright Futures Scholarships, established in 1997, go to private colleges and universities, too. Since 2007, $396 million worth. My gut tells me some of these institutions – Hobe Sound Bible College, Trinity Baptist College, St. John Vianney College Seminary, etc. – might be a wee bit religious.

Some choice critics still argue the new Family Empowerment Scholarship is a dangerous precedent. Why? Because, they suggest, it’s the first to be funded from the Florida Education Finance Program, which the Legislature uses to allocate money to school districts.

But, no. The McKay Scholarship is funded out of the FEFP. It has been for nearly two decades.

So what gives?

I’m no legal expert. But if it’s a matter of principle, it doesn’t make sense for choice opponents to blast some state-funded private school scholarships as unconstitutional atrocities – and perhaps file suit to kill them – but shrug at others.

If it’s the Florida Constitution’s “no aid” provision/Blaine Amendment they think is being trampled, then wouldn’t VPK, McKay, EASE, Bright Futures and other “vouchers” also be unconstitutional?

If they think Article IX is at stake – the section that says it’s a “paramount duty” of the state to make “adequate provision” for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools” – then why haven’t they filed suit to kill McKay?

Ditto for the Gardiner Scholarship Program, created in 2014 for students with special needs like autism and Down syndrome. It’s state funded; big and getting bigger; and being used by thousands of parents to pay tuition at private and faith-based schools. Total appropriations now top $500 million, and at the current rate of growth, will be at $1 billion in three years.

Goodness. Where’s the outrage?

Maybe it’s thumping its chest next to the gorilla?

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