Florida Teachers vs. Poor Parents

April 11, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on April 11, 2008.

The Florida Education Association is threatening a lawsuit to shut down the state’s scholarship program for low‐​income kids. Under this program, businesses can donate to nonprofit scholarship organizations, and then claim a tax credit up to a certain limit. The scholarship money brings the option of private schooling within reach of families that couldn’t otherwise afford it.

Why this talk of a lawsuit now, after the scholarships have been operating for seven years? The union worries that the program might offer educational choice to too many poor children.

The Legislature is considering raising the cap on the amount that businesses can donate toward scholarships, and the public‐​school‐​employee union is seeing red. Ron Meyer, lead counsel for the FEA, told the media recently that if the program were to triple in size over the next five years, “they may go to court” to kill it.

Meyer doesn’t cite the best interests of children or families in this decision. The union’s concern is simply that the program might grow too large. But the only way the program can grow is if poor parents want it to. The Legislature can raise the cap on donations, but the law requires all funds be assigned to recipient students in the same year they’re given. And scholarship organizations cannot carry over more than a quarter of total donations from one year to the next. So unless demand triples in the next five years, the program couldn’t triple.

Of course, demand for the program really is growing. In the past three years, the number of children benefitting from the scholarships has nearly doubled, to 19,416, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Why does the union want to stop poor families from getting access to independent schools?

Look at it from the union’s perspective. There were 837,000 public‐​school union members in 1961. There are more than 4 million today — two‐​thirds of public‐​school workers. By contrast, during roughly the same period, union membership has fallen from 39 percent to just 7.4 percent of the private‐​sector workforce. If large numbers of families can easily choose independent schools for their kids, public‐​school union membership could be decimated — and with it the guaranteed revenues and political clout union leaders now enjoy.

Our public‐​school system is designed such that the interests of teachers — and union leaders — are pitted against the interests of families. Parents want the best, most appropriate education for their children, so the scholarship‐​tax credit has been growing in popularity. But unions want to protect their members’ jobs, raise their salaries and reduce their workloads (i.e., class sizes). If protecting union jobs means killing a scholarship program serving poor kids, well …

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s more than one way to organize a school system. Think of tutoring schools like Sylvan Learning Systems, and Kumon, that are freely chosen by parents and have to compete to attract students. They have only three ways to increase their profits: Enroll more students, offer the same quality of service at a lower cost, or raise the quality of their services so parents will be willing to pay more. What’s good for them is good for families.

The tutoring sector is growing fast in the United States, but it has a long way to go to catch up to most Asian nations, where the vast majority of families pay for tutoring services that teach whatever and however they want, and set their own prices.

That system rewards success, encourages innovation, and treats teachers like professionals. Most important, it unites the interests of educators with those of parents. Want more job security or higher pay? Just figure out how to serve families better.

Florida could reap similar benefits by eliminating the cap on tax credits for scholarship donations, and by letting families take tax credits directly for their own children’s tuition. Or the state can just sit back as public schools continue their downward spiral, and watch as the teachers union leaves poor families with even fewer educational choices.

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