Op-Ed

Republican lawmakers, governor undermine education at Florida’s public schools | Opinion

Every neighborhood public school ought to offer a quality education. That goal is not one necessarily shared by all of my colleagues in the Florida Legislature.

Two letters to the editor in the Herald during legislative session — “I’ll quit teaching” on April 22 and “Why did the Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation roll over in Tallahassee?” on May 5 — did not accurately reflect my views, voting record or advocacy in favor of public education.

Ironically, I was unable to respond to these letters in part because I was working hard during the session in support of education.

Still, the public education system did not fare well during Florida’s most recent legislative session that wrapped up earlier this month. Most important, legislation has already been signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis creating an expansive system of private vouchers. The private-education voucher provisions in SB 7070 will divert $130 million that would otherwise go to public education.

There is no evidence linking vouchers to student achievement gains. One reason is that they are not held accountable for teaching and learning like our public schools are. Private voucher schools do not have to hire certified teachers. Their students do not have to take the same state-required tests.

Florida Republicans have shown they are intent on privatizing public education. The data show that the effect is also to re-segregate schools and open up gaps in achievement on racial, ethnic and economic lines.

More than a decade ago, the Florida Supreme Court rejected a similar program. The Florida Constitution requires us to “make adequate provision for the education of all children;” specifically, a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.” Using public money to create a system that competes with traditional public schools violates the Florida Constitution, the court said.

So why the private vouchers this year?

The Legislature was emboldened by the ideological bent of a new Republican governor. More important, the governor has been able to appoint three new justices to the state Supreme Court. That tilts it decidedly to the right. Republicans hope to revisit the ruling barring a parallel private education system funded by public dollars.

Then there’s HB 7123. Already signed into law, the Legislature’s annual tax bill includes provisions that will force future local school tax referenda dollars to be shared with private charter schools. Before the change, sharing was optional. In the past, some districts did, and others did not.

One such November referendum was held in Miami-Dade. We voted Yes on ballot item #362 to give public school teachers raises and fund school safety. Some in the Legislature wanted to retroactively force Miami-Dade County Public Schools to share funds with private charters. A group of us from South Florida worked hard against that and were at least able to stop the retroactivy in HB 7123.

A third bill includes provisions that further arm teachers. SB 7030, this year’s school safety bill, was already signed into law. Arming teachers is a dangerous and insulting idea. It is also another way resources are being diverted.

Improving schools’ mental-health services, “hardening” schools and improving information-sharing between agencies all have broad if not near-unanimous support. SB 7030, however, broadens a program to arm educators that was created by last year’s SB 7026, passed in the wake of the Parkland massacre. Last year, $67 million was put in the budget for the program to arm teachers — only $10 million of which has been spent by the two dozen locations that have implemented it.

Thankfully we won’t see armed teachers in South Florida. The program is still voluntary. Unfortunately, we won’t see the remaining $57 million, either. The Legislature refused to free up those unspent dollars for school-safety expenses not related to arming teachers. That means those funds out of reach for South Florida.

State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez represents District 37 in Miami.

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