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Florida Voucher proponents plant fear, misinformation and acrimony

By Wayne Blanton
I am grateful to the South Florida Sun Sentinel for its insightful, balanced, and responsible editorial on Nov. 29, “Court Review of School Vouchers Long Overdue.” I found Doug Tuthill’s combative response to the editorial surprising since I invited Tuthill to meet with me, and we sat down together last week to discuss areas of potential agreement.
Although he has been president of Step Up for Students for many years, it appears he’s not well-informed about his own program. The only other explanation for the errors in his response to the editorial supporting legal review of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is he is on a mission to deceive the public.
The “massive expansion” he denies exists refers to a $72 million increase in the program’s funding limit in just the past year. Initially, the program had a $50 million funding limit intended to aid low-income families. Now, sitting on an exorbitant $358 million cap, the program has increased its eligibility ceiling to include families of four making up to approximately $62,000 per year. That doesn’t sound like “Florida’s poorest schoolchildren.”
And, in terms of saving the state money, apparently Tuthill is unaware of the Legislature’s own analysis showing that, if left unchecked, the program soon will create a financial deficit for the state.
Tuthill also claims voucher students are learning, but avoids the real question: What are they learning? It seems he doesn’t want the public to know the private schools participating in this voucher program do not have to be accredited, teachers do not have to be certified, textbooks do not have to be up-to-date, and curriculum does not have to be in line with Florida’s high state standards.
Further, since voucher students are not required to take Florida’s statewide, standardized assessments, there is absolutely no way to measure whether these voucher schools are providing the high quality education guaranteed by our state constitution.
Not content to defend his program with vague half-truths, Tuthill also chose to strike out blindly at his opponents with baseless accusations. The education leaders behind the lawsuit have historically fought for students’ rights and are in no way attempting to deny equal opportunity to low-income students. As elected constitutional officers, school board members are sworn to uphold the Florida Constitution and are obliged to question laws and regulations which may violate its provisions.
The plaintiffs in this case believe that, in addition to infringing upon the separation of church and state by allowing state funds to indirectly aid sectarian institutions — more than 70 percent of participating schools are religious — the Tax Credit Scholarship Program recruits vulnerable students and diverts state funding into a parallel system of private education that is devoid of public transparency.
Tuthill’s comments in response to the Sun Sentinel’s editorial have maligned and insulted those who have legitimate concerns about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and, worse, he has created panic and confusion for the students and families engaged in the program.
The Florida School Boards Association, Florida Education Association, Florida League of Women Voters, Florida PTA, NAACP and other backers of the lawsuit have asked the court to review the Tax Credit Scholarship Program to determine if it complies with the requirements of the Florida Constitution. If this voucher program is all Tuthill claims it to be, he should have no fear of a judicial review of the program to affirm its legitimacy.
Dr. Wayne Blanton is the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. He can be reached at blanton@fsba.org.

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