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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How the Florida legislature uses religion to manipulate the public in the education debate

by Julie DeLegal

In the wake of a recent circuit court decision, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has rewritten a legislatively-composed ballot initiative that would, critics say, allow state money to go directly to private, religious school vouchers.

Floridians may be surprised to learn that we already have private school vouchers, and that they are already redeemable at various religious schools. (See Lawmakers call these vouchers “tax credit scholarships.” Tragically, Florida’s religious voucher schools don’t produce favorable results for our children. The last apples-to-apples comparison showed that low-income voucher students performed only as well as their low-income public school peers—you know, the ones who, the choice-and-competition people would tell you, are “trapped” in failing schools.

The idea that private schools are better than public schools is a myth. A broad and comprehensive DOE-sponsored study, conducted under Pres. George W. Bush in 2006, revealed that when socio-economic status of students is taken into account, there’s virtually no difference between public and private school performance. It’s time for the Florida legislature to quit using “choice” as a pretext for de-funding our public schools.

All the sound and fury surrounding Amendment 7, (which, if passed, threatens to undo the First Amendment protections of Florida’s longstanding Blaine Amendment,) serve purposes that have nothing to do with vouchers. First, as Lee Fang of The Nation astutely reported in his December 5 article, the anti-Blaine Amendment serves as a decoy to “thin out” the choice-and-competition movement’s political enemy. That is, the ballot proposal was intended to keep the teachers’ unions busy so lawmakers can pass their real agenda, which Fang says is virtual charter schools. (See for the article, or for a local digest by this letter’s author.)

The other purpose, on the eve of a Presidential election year, is to rile up the ultra-conservative religious base—one that has been conditioned to respond, like Pavlov’s dog, when so-called “market-based solutions” are paired with anything remotely connectable with Jesus. As a person of faith, I’m offended, and it’s not just because conservatives are still trying to prostitute my religion for business purposes. I’m offended because I know that any discussion I have with my lawmakers about reliable funding, local control, and research-based solutions for Florida's students will be conveniently erased by political “leadership” that takes its orders from industry lobbyists. Our kids don’t have a prayer.

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