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Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014
Editorials

Editorial: Families deserve education options

Published:

The courts will determine whether the teachers’ union lawsuit against voucher legislation passed late in the Florida Legislature’s session has merit.

But there should be little doubt about the value of giving parents — particularly parents of children with profound special needs — more education options.

Indeed, six families with disabled children want to intervene on the state’s behalf. They understand the importance of having options beyond public school offerings.

Lawmakers this year adopted legislation expanding the state voucher program that also created scholarships for severely disabled children.

The Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts would be established for about 1,800 students with specified disabilities, such as autism or Down syndrome.

The accounts would average about $10,000 a year and could be used not only for tuition but also for such specific needs as speech and physical therapies, digital devices or other technology that advances the students’ education.

Such assistance can be critical.

A Tampa family is among those who want to help defend the state’s choice law. The Kurniks’ 12-year-old son has autism and is home-schooled.

John Kurnik told Tribune staff writer Erin Kourkounis that the Personal Learning Scholarship Program is “just a phenomenal opportunity. We haven’t had a whole lot of luck with services for John. ... It’s all about getting the right services to the kids and helping them become the best they can be.”

But those additional services could be blocked by a lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association (FEA), the statewide teachers’ union.

The union claims the legislation is unconstitutional because, among other things, it violates the mandate that each legislation be limited to a single subject.

Perhaps, but the voucher measure was attached to legislation concerning education matters.

The union’s real concern, no doubt, is that the provision greatly expands the state’s voucher program, the Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Under the program, companies receive a tax credit by contributing to the scholarship fund. Union officials invariably depict the program as a diversion of money from public schools, but state funds are not used directly for private schools. Companies voluntarily participate.

With the changes lawmakers adopted this year, families of four making up to $62,010 will be eligible for at least a partial scholarship. Previously, that number had been $43,568.

The legislation also eliminated the requirement that a student first must attend a public school before becoming eligible for the scholarship. This allows more families to take advantage of the program — if they choose to do so.

But this expansion of choice is poison to the teachers’ union, which seems to view any alternative to public schools as a threat.

It’s true that sometimes lawmakers act as if private schools can do no wrong, while public schools must be shrouded with a blanket of accountability rules.

But, ultimately, the voucher program simply empowers parents to find the school that works best for their children.

For the overwhelming majority of families, that is going to be a public school. But the voucher program offers more choices and competition, which benefits parents, children and Florida’s education system.

Moreover, the state spends close to $7,000 per public school student. The Florida Tax Scholarship Program pays around $5,000 per student. It is not draining money from public schools; it is cutting taxpayers’ costs.

However the courts rule on the FEA’s litigation, lawmakers should continue to see that a robust voucher program should be part of the Florida’s education strategy.

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