As far as education policy goes, Florida’s 2022 Legislative Session could be summed up in two words: “Culture Wars.” “Stop WOKE” (HB7), “Don’t Say Gay” (HB1557), and “Exposing Porn in Public School Libraries” (HB1467) were the trifecta of political campaigning pretending to be legitimate education policy. The message was clear, our public schools were dangerous – full of indoctrination and “groomers” – and only Ron DeSantis could fix them (and even if he couldn’t, here is a voucher so you can move your child to a private school). Clearly, the plan was successful; DeSantis won by a landslide, the FLGOP has a super-majority in both houses, and political endorsements have turned non-partisan school boards into the epicenter of disruption in the name of “Education Freedom.”

The 2023 Legislative Session begins with Committee Weeks on January 3rd. What can Floridians expect? Here are some guesses:

  • Amend “Resign to Run” so that DeSantis won’t doesn’t have to, even though his current term extends 2 years past the 2024 presidential election.
  • Further restriction of Female Reproductive Rights: A Heart Beat Abortion Bill is being bandied about.
  • More guns on school campuses – Changing the current Guardian Program from optional to required in public schools (including charters)
  • Constitutional Carry – eliminating the need for a permit to legally carry a concealed weapon in public. Why not allow the good guys with a gun to carry them everywhere?
  • Continued attacks on “Blue State Covid Responses” with attacks on vaccine manufacturers. Attacks on Biden/Brandon and teachers unions in general.
  • More politicized school boards: after “Friends of DeSantis” poured more than $2 million into local, “non-partisan” school board races in 2022, bills have already been filed to make the races officially partisan.
  • More attacks on teachers’ unions, forbidding the paying of union dues by payroll deduction with the hopes of decertifying unions.
  • Continued Culture Wars
    • expansion of Don’t Say Gay, Senate President Passidomo suggests further restricting any mention of sexual orientation or gender identity until middle school.
    • Pandering to Moms For Liberty (M4L) with an expansion of the “Parental Bill of Rights” which is synonymous with attacks of LGBTQ youth
    • More book bans – The M4L members of the recent Library Media Work Group want to stop librarians from sneaking “porn” into schools by claiming the books contain the racy passages have literary value. They have asked for specific definitions of obscenity, restrictions on any books containing sadomasochism, bestiality, or pedophilia, etc., and, perhaps, all books that “promote” sex outside of marriage. One M4L mom in the workgroup suggested preventing school libraries from providing students information regarding how to register to vote (really).
  • More “Us vs. Them” strategies that keep the culture war going “because we can

While all this is happening, Floridians will barely notice the expansion to Universal Vouchers and their transformation to Education Savings Accounts or ESAs. The transformation to ESAs will likely move through committees as though they are merely, once again, expanding access to tuition vouchers, but ESAs are NOT tuition vouchers. ESAs, like the former Gardiner Program for children with special needs (now known as the FES-UA), provide a student with the equivalent of a publicly funded edu-debit card, which can be spent on an array of education services, including (but not restricted to) private school tuition. This is the privatizer’s end game – the dismantling and unbundling of public schools and, ultimately, the transfer of the responsibility of educating children from the community to the individual alone. When the community no longer feels responsible for providing education to other people’s children, the real defunding and dismantling can begin.

Despite the well-documented poor performance of children in voucher programs across the country, where it has been repeatedly shown that voucher participation leads to more “learning loss” than the Covid pandemic did, so-called reformers continue to move forward. Why? Because the goal has never been improving education for all students but rather privatizing and dismantling the public school system all together. ESAs are a significant step in that direction.

ESAs are not a new idea. Early during the pandemic, in the Spring of 2020, then-Senator (now Commissioner of Education) Manny Diaz Jr. was interviewed by Step Up for Students’ CEO, Doug Tuthill, and admitted that converting tuition vouchers to ESAs has been his goal for a long time and that the Covid crisis was a perfect time to “really accelerate things” towards ESAs.

In 2021, Diaz proposed a bill (SB48) which would have consolidated all of Florida’s then Billion Dollar Voucher programs into ESAs. At the time, Diaz minimized the radical transformation that his bill would have had, suggesting it merely “streamlined” the programs, and the bill moved through education committee stops with senators barely discussing its radical nature. Ultimately, the House voucher bill, which dramatically expanded tuition vouchers was passed instead of Diaz’ ESA bill.

In September 2022, at the unveiling of the rightwing Heritage Education Freedom Report Card, DeSantis discussed moving towards ESAs as a way of “modernizing” Florida’s Voucher program and saying, “we will definitely work to make that happen” this session.

In December, DeSantis invited conservative school board members and Moms For Liberty (M4L) parents to attend his “Freedom Blueprint Education Conference.” Invited speakers included Commissioner Diaz, former FLCOE Richard Corcoran, M4L founders, and former USSOE Betsy DeVos – all the big ESA proponents. An ominous sign…

Like most of Florida’s other vouchers, in order to qualify for an ESAs, the student must un-enroll from public school. With ESAs, however, private school attendance is optional. Families can purchase educational products and services from an e-commerce website run by Step Up For Students, a politically connected non-profit which manages the majority of Florida’s voucher programs, who has no obligation to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. Since SUFS is a private company, there is little to no fiscal transparency. There are no academic standards or curricular requirements. The state provides no academic oversight. While we (personally) know many current ESA recipients who do spend their funds for they special needs children wisely, the system is out of the sunshine and ripe for waste, fraud and abuse. Current Florida’s ESA recipients (former Gardiner recipients) complain that the current system needs a complete overhaul. Current recipients find it easier to purchase gaming consoles (Nintendo and PS-5s), swing sets, and Legos from the e-commerce site than obtain the specialized therapies their children need. When members of the SUFS Parent Advisory Council complained to the Legislature, SUFS disbanded the council. Imagine, for a moment, how well the e-commerce site will work when ALL of Florida’s children have access to it.

Of course, many families will simply use the ESA to fund their child’s private school tuition. In state after state, most tax-funded voucher recipients are not families “trapped” in public school but rather families whose children were already in private schools (thus receiving a “tuition discount”).

What can a public school advocate do?

Make a New Year’s resolution to fight for public ed. Make sure your lawmakers understand that ESAs are NOT tuition vouchers, they have even less accountability than “regular” vouchers, and the e-commerce system that currently services Florida’s few ESAs for children with special needs is wholly inadequate. These schemes are designed to dismantle public schools, which continue to serve the vast majority of Florida’s children.

By Sue Kingery Woltanski

(the views expressed are my own and may not reflect the views of the Monroe County School Board.)

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