The Florida House has identified its top priority for the 60-day legislative session that begins March 7: universal school vouchers, regardless of income.
Such a change would culminate a nearly quarter-century campaign by Republicans in Florida to privatize public education. Doing so could have implications for traditional public schools in Boca Raton and Delray Beach.
Former Governor Jeb Bush started a voucher program that the Florida Supreme Court struck down in 2006, correctly noting that the Florida Constitution prohibits spending state money on private education. So the Legislature funded a new voucher program with corporate tax revenue diverted into the program. Subsequent courts have upheld that solution.
A group called Step Up For Students, outside of state government, administers the voucher program. As of 2020, the group’s president earned nearly $300,000. Step Up For Students’ board includes founder John Kirtley, who began lobbying for coupon money decades ago.
During the current school year, that funding amounts to $1.3 billion, up from $326 million in 2020. Although supporters insisted the program was aimed at students from poor families, the Legislature has steadily raised the income limit. Households with income of $100,000 now qualify.
House Bill 1 would remove the cap, although the priority would supposedly remain for low-income students. Approximately a quarter of a million students attend school on voucher scholarships, and about 9,000 are on the waiting list for one.
Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Mike Burke said vouchers are the main reason behind the enrollment decline of 5,356 students districtwide since 2019. Although enrollment has declined at several Delray Beach schools, Boca Raton schools remain full or near capacity.
But as School Board President Frank Barbieri points out, HB 1 could affect schools across the county. “I’m concerned,” said Barbieri, who represents Boca Raton and West Boca. “It could dilute what (money) is available for certain programs. All of that is based on the students.”
The Legislature allocates money by district, not by school. If universal vouchers take more students from traditional public schools in Palm Beach County, all schools could suffer. Some, Barbieri said, could lose choice and career academy programs, the same options the district offers to keep parents from switching to private schools.
About 70 percent of students statewide attend private schools, most of them run by religious organizations, through the use of vouchers. These schools do not have to give the same tests that the state requires public schools to give to students. As a result, there is no way to determine whether voucher students are doing better than their public school counterparts.
Voucher schools do not have to hire certified teachers or meet state curriculum guidelines. Some have taught that dinosaurs and humans lived together.
Vouchers can also discriminate. A private Christian school near Tampa last year ordered all LGBTQ students to leave. He received $1.6 million in voucher scholarships.
HB 1 will be an interesting vote for Peggy Gossett-Seidman, the newly elected Republican member of the Florida House who represents Boca Raton. The Palm Beach County School Board will oppose the legislation. The GOP-led House, however, will not tolerate dissent on almost any issue, especially an important one like school vouchers.
I will have more up to and through the session.
Florida Supreme Court Rules Against Firearms Regulation Challenge
Last week, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against Boca Raton and other plaintiffs who challenged a 2011 law on local firearms regulation.
In 1987, the Legislature preempted all those laws to the state. Twelve years ago, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, Tallahassee went further. Any city or county official who votes in favor of a local firearms bill can face a fine of up to $5,000 if a judge determines that the state law violation was “knowingly and willfully.”
Under the law, aggrieved groups like the NRA can sue cities and counties if they oppose a local restriction. The legislation prohibits the reimbursement of the fine. Its original version even allowed dismissal from office.
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in February 2018, some cities and counties challenged the 2011 law. The city of Weston, in Broward County, initiated the effort. Thirty cities, including Boca Raton, three counties, and approximately 70 local officials made up the plaintiffs.
They argued that local immunity protects local officials from those provisions of the law. They won at trial. However, it is not surprising that they lost in the 1st District Court of Appeals. Now, the state supreme court has upheld that ruling.
Writing for the 5-1 majority, Judge Ricky Polston wrote that siding with the plaintiffs would “frustrate the Legislature’s ability to set policy for the state.”
In dissent, Judge Jorge Labarga quoted the trial judge, who said the “knowingly and deliberate” language violated the separation of powers by allowing “an impermissible judicial intrusion” into the “thought process” of an elected official.
The state did not challenge the trial judge’s decision that struck down the deportation order. After almost five years, that is the only victory for the plaintiffs.
Another Brightline train-related death
The latest death involving a Brightline train occurred Saturday morning at 4200 North Dixie Highway in Boca Raton. According to a spokeswoman for the police department, the investigation is ongoing.
Approximately 70 people have died between West Palm Beach and Miami since Brightline began service in 2017. Although no deaths have been traced to a faulty train or signal-crossing operation, the company recently applied for and received a grant $25 million federal grant for additional security measures. The Florida Department of Transportation and Brightline will each contribute another $10 million.
The last Brightline death in Boca Raton occurred three months ago. Occurred in the Southwest 18the Cross street. Brightline opened its station in Boca Raton last month.
A brief meeting for the Boca council tonight
Boca Raton city council members may set a record tonight for the shortest meeting in recent history.
Due to a scheduling quirk, there is nothing before the council except the consent agenda, which usually passes without discussion. There are no public hearings or introduction of ordinances. There is the usual public comment period, which sometimes does not attract speakers, and the normal reports from the city manager, city attorney, and council members.
In nine years of writing this blog, I have never seen such a slim agenda. Given the time it takes to prepare for meetings, you can assume that city staff members appreciate the break.
Bezos Academy to open at FAU
The opening of a Bezos Academy preschool at Florida Atlantic University did not happen last fall as originally planned. An FAU spokeswoman now says the school, funded by the Amazon founder, will open “in the coming months.”
The site will be the former Karen Slattery Center, named for the Delray Beach teenager who was murdered in 1984 at the home where she babysat. The pandemic-era restriction forced the school to close in 2020. Next door is AD Henderson, the FAU-affiliated K-8 lab school.
At its peak, the Slattery Center had 100 students. According to the Bezos Academy website, the new school has filled all of its spaces. The academy will open “in early 2023 after we do some renovations to make the space perfect.”