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May 27, 2018


John D. McKinnon | 9/1/1995
In the end, making the case for reforming Florida's public education system is easy. The schools are doing it themselves. Literally.

In a mammoth lawsuit filed against the Legislature by 44 of the state's 67 county school boards, the state's public school establishment admits up front that the schools are doing a miserable job of educating children. Among the grim statistics cited: As many as 40% of their high school graduates who go on to college have to take remedial courses.

The only real question is, how to fix Florida's education mess? Throw even more money at it, as the public school establishment demands, or try something different?

Increasingly, even friends of education say bigger budgets will only wind up rewarding failure. Says reformer Charlotte Greenbarg, president of Independent Voices for Better Education, an advocacy group based in Hollywood: "Humongous amounts of money have been coming in to the schools over the years. And very little has been produced except more excuses."

The real answer, many advocates say, is a different system, one based on the marketplace, where parents would be free to choose the schools that do best. "In most sectors of our society, we accept automatically that when you have a monopoly, prices tend to be higher and quality tends to be lower," says David Salisbury, a former Florida State University professor who's affiliated with the conservative James Madison Institute in Tallahassee. "Yet somehow when we get to educational services we tend to forget that."

It's a timely argument, given what's happening to government monopolies around the world. It's also an argument whose time appears to be coming in Florida. Expect significant change to begin within about a year.

"If we don't achieve success in the Legislature in 1996, I can assure you some of us will be discussing an initiative very seriously, and we might be discussing it before the session," says Stanley Marshall, chairman and CEO of the James Madison Institute and acting director of Floridians for Educational Choice. "I believe it would pass very comfortably."

Market-based approaches to education reform come in several varieties. For now, reformers are focusing most of their efforts on what are known as "charter" schools. These are quasi-private institutions created through special government dispensation. For example, under a model favored by Florida Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, a school board might allow some teachers and principals to convert an existing school into a free-standing institution. Although still subject to school board control, such a charter school would be free of much of the regulation under which conventional public schools must operate.

"Charter schools give us the chance to experiment and see what happens, meet the needs of parents and students who want something different," says Mary Markin, a Tallahassee teacher who wants to start a charter school emphasizing parental involvement. Among the many proposed reforms, charter schools are feared the least by the public education establishment because the government would retain control over their creation.

More far-reaching are reform measures calling for publicly financed vouchers or "portable scholarships" that parents could use at any private school. Some of these measures call for the scholarships to be restricted only to children of low or moderate income families; others exclude children already enrolled in private schools. But there can be little doubt that any voucher program would have a dramatic effect in introducing competition and market forces into public education.

Vouchers suffered a setback last year when Gov. Chiles, a voucher opponent, defeated Republican challenger Jeb Bush, who favored vouchers. But charter schools and even full-fledged vouchers are still very much alive.

One reason: More and more parents already are choosing non-public schooling, even without state aid. Over the last three years, private school enrollments have risen a stunning 19.6%, according to state statistics, compared to 8.3% for public schools. As of the 1994-95 school year, the public school enrollment for K-12 stood at 2,061,134, against 233,510 for non-public schools.

To really see parents voting with their feet, however, consider how many parents are educating their kids at home. Their numbers have grown by an average of 21% each year during the 1990s. State officials estimate the current home-school population has risen by now to 18,000.

What are the prospects for 1996? During the 1995 legislative session, teachers unions blocked charter school bills despite support from the governor, the commissioner of education and the leadership in both houses of the Legislature. Continued gridlock could prompt reformers to take the initiative route, and if that happens, they'll be tempted to go for the big prize - some form of vouchers - in addition to charter schools.

Even if the Legislature eventually adopts a charter school law, it's likely to be so watered down that the public won't be fooled for long. Of the 19 or so states that adopted charter legislation by mid-1995, about half had passed what charter school pioneer Ted Kolderie refers to as "dead" laws - measures that have produced hardly any new schools, much less innovative ones.

The charter school bills debated in Florida last year were far from radical. They included severe limitations on the number of charter schools that could be created and a provision that restricted authorization of charter schools to county school boards, where unions tend to exercise a lot of influence. Kolderie, a Minnesota analyst with the Center for Policy Studies who helped create the charter school concept for the national Democratic Leadership Council, says Florida's charter sponsors "started with a strong bill and saw it cut back and cut back and cut back."

Union representatives are unapologetic about their campaign to weaken or kill strong charter proposals. Says Florida Education Association United lobbyist Melinda Piller Swaford: "I have to tell you we didn't like anything we saw. There were portions that really would have hurt us, and we have to look out for our members."

Vouchers face even stronger opposition from the education establishment. Teachers unions so far have defeated voucher measures virtually everywhere, even in referendum votes. But that may soon change, both in Florida and across the country.

Budget tightening could force legislators to look for less expensive, alternative approaches to education. As former Florida Budget Director Glenn W. Robertson explained in these pages last month, Florida faces terrible structural deficits in the coming years ["Debt Storm Rising," August 1995]. Lt. Governor Buddy MacKay predicted in July that imminent federal budget cuts would cost Florida $300 million to $500 million in Medicaid subsidies alone and would probably require a special session of the Legislature this fall. Notes state Sen. Fred Dudley, R-Cape Coral, who heads the Senate education appropriations subcommittee: "All that has to encourage people to look for alternatives" at the expense of traditional public schools.

Vouchers hold out the promise of savings by eliminating bureaucratic restrictions. Catholic schools, for example, provide elementary education at an average per-pupil expenditure that is one-third less than the state's per-pupil average.

Of course, if the state wound up paying the tuition of students already in private school, that would cost extra money that might not be offset by any efficiency gains. But reformers say vouchers could be structured to prevent that problem. One plan being developed by conservatives for the 1996 Legislature would guarantee vouchers only for current public school students who transfer to private schools. To overcome objections that vouchers would hurt local school budgets, the plan also would give the local school systems some compensation for each student lost under the plan.

Another option would be a means-tested program that effectively provides full scholarships for families with incomes of up to $15,000 and smaller vouchers for families making more. Families making more than $50,000 or so would receive no help at all.

Unions and other public school advocates are likely to raise Constitutional challenges based on the separation of church and state to voucher programs that include religious schools. Reformers insist those fears are exaggerated. They note that government money already flows unchallenged to private religious schools in large amounts. For example, in 1995-96 Florida is providing a $1,200 payment for residents who attend in-state private colleges and universities, including religious ones. The government also provides voucher payments to needy parents for pre-kindergarten schools, including religious ones. Government aid even flows to K-12 religious schools, mostly through federal programs for library books and other resources. And through measures like the GI Bill, which gives veterans scholarships they can use at any public or private university, government has long been using what is in effect a voucher system to support higher education.

Perhaps the most serious concern about vouchers is that they would turn public schools into schools of last resort for the poor. "I don't think vouchers provide choice except for people who already have choice," argues John Ryor, executive director of the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association.

Voucher supporters say they doubt that will happen. The purchasing power that vouchers will put into the hands of low and moderate income parents, they argue, will cause the market to respond by constructing more private schools in their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the competition created by private schools will force public schools to perform better. "I would almost bet that after eight or ten years the number of students in private schools would not exceed 20%, because the public schools would have responded," says Stanley Marshall of the James Madison Institute.

"Opponents (of vouchers) who predict a mass exodus - I tell them, 'You must think the public schools are worse than I do.' "

Critics sometimes charge that vouchers will also lead to resegregation - a process that is already occurring as busing plans are slowly dismantled. All the more reason, reformers say, for a voucher program that will give low-income parents the power to choose the best school for their children.

Which education groups will benefit from expanded school choice? That depends on which model comes to predominate. If charter schools become widespread, then the likely beneficiaries would be people with ties to the existing public schools, especially teachers and administrators, who would have the inside track for obtaining charters from county school boards.

Another beneficiary might be Jeb Bush, who has announced his intention to start a charter school in poverty-stricken Liberty City through his Foundation for Florida's Future, in conjunction with the Urban League of Greater Miami. "While I'm a supporter of vouchers conceptually," Bush says, "I think it's more productive to convince people there are steps we can take right now."

On the other hand, if vouchers eventually become the vehicle for change, the big beneficiaries would be private schools, including smaller startup schools and possibly religious schools. Even day care centers could play an expanded role. Not all existing private schools are wild about using vouchers, however, because of concerns about strings the government might attach.

The potential impact of vouchers is perhaps greatest for the state's numerous religious schools. More than half of Florida's 1,460 private schools are religious. Catholic schools predominate with 216 institutions.

Catholic educators in Florida are particularly excited by the idea, even though their schools for the most part are full. And even conservative Protestant educators appear more willing to consider vouchers, which they once feared as official intrusion. "There's a progressive change," says Howard Burke, executive director of the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which includes 212 institutions, about 60% of them Baptist. Many younger Christian school leaders are "less apprehensive toward the government overtaking their ministry," Burke says.

Others, especially in the emerging private-school industry serving African-Americans, openly welcome the idea of vouchers.

In Tallahassee, Rev. R.B. Holmes, Jr., founded Bethel Christian Academy four years ago to provide moral as well as academic training, along with a dose of the African-American culture that public schools often ignore. Holmes admits that growth is slow, because many parents simply can't afford the $2,650 tuition. But a voucher system "would level the playing field," he says, "and make all of us do our jobs better."

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