Fabiola Santiago

Giving students school choice or ripping off public education? Hard to tell in Florida. | Opinion

To freshman Rep. Vance Aloupis, a Miami Republican, the Florida Legislature’s substantial public money giveaways to private schools — at the expense of public education — are an “issue of equity.”

“I believe at the end of the day this is about the American Dream,” Aloupis said on the House floor.

His comment struck me as a bit of flag-waving on a hot issue, something politicians often do to turn everything they want, and the way they want it, into a matter of patriotism.

In this case, what Republicans wanted — and gave themselves with the help of a few Democrats — was a legislative session in which they went against an existing Supreme Court ruling and created a $130 million voucher program that will pay the private school tuition of 18,000 students.

Republican lawmakers like Aloupis say this creates “equity” for low-income students who aren’t getting the education they need from failing public schools.

“The opportunity for every child should be the same whether they live in Overtown or Brickell Key,” Aloupis told me. “We’re giving more power to parents to have more say in their children’s education.”

I have no doubt he believes this, but Republicans set the “poverty” line income for the vouchers at $77,000 for a household of four.

This doesn’t sound like helping kids of color in poor neighborhoods, but taking the middle class out of public schools.

It speaks more to Kendall than Liberty City or Allapattah.

And this isn’t the only public money the Legislature doled out to private and charter schools.

They’re also forcing 20 districts that recently passed a tax increase to fund public schools — including Miami-Dade County — to share that money with charter schools.

Republicans also argue that this represents “equity” because “a teacher is a teacher and a student is a student” no matter where they are. But charter schools, run by for-profit and nonprofit companies, don’t operate by the same rules and standards that public schools do.

“Are these bold proposals? Absolutely,” Aloupis says. “But Florida has done remarkable things in education over the last 15 years. Look at our graduation rates.”

Florida’s high school graduation rate hit an all-time high of 86.1 percent last year — but the rate for blacks and Hispanics, while also on the rise, still lags behind.

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There’s another concern with the funneling of tax funds to charter schools at the expense of public education: It’s self-serving.

There are way too many powerful legislators who have a clear conflict of interest on this issue. They draw salaries from charter school companies or own private schools — and should not be allowed to vote, much less propose and push forward legislation that benefits their bosses or businesses.

But, as I wrote last legislative session, Florida is an ethically challenged state.

Lawmakers get away with it because clueless, ill-informed voters — and voters from both parties who want to send their kids wherever they want but don’t want to pay for private education — keep sending them back to Tallahassee.

Lawmakers are supposed to be funding and defending public education. But instead they take money for the vouchers to fund private businesses from general revenue funds that should go to improving public schools that are historically short-changed.

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I do agree with Aloupis on one thing: The issue of equity is at the heart of school funding in Florida.

All children — rich or poor, gay or straight or transgender, native-born or immigrant, able-bodied or with special needs, black or brown or white or whatever shade in the human rainbow — have the same right to a quality education.

The only place that by law and design guarantees that all children will be treated equally and given equal access is in public schools.

Private schools — and particularly religious ones — play by different rules, generally exclusionary ones by design. These rules may not all be stated in writing, although many are, but preference is what defines these institutions.

Catholic schools usually require regular church attendance and involvement by children and parents, not to mention generous donations to the parish.

Too many Christian schools want to “fix” gay children. They believe homosexuality is a sin.

If schools that will benefit from these vouchers aren’t discriminating against gay children, for example, then why did Republican legislators turn down an amendment proposed by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, to make it illegal for private schools to get voucher money if they refuse admission to students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity?

That alone speaks volumes.

Our tax dollars shouldn’t go to educational institutions that cater to individual preferences and beliefs or sustain a particular religion, and are thus designed to discriminate against everyone who doesn’t fit the bill.

There’s no equity in the Florida Legislature’s idea of school choice.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”