In March of this year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a substantial expansion of the state’s school voucher program, which had previously been designed to assist low-income families with educational expenses. The expansion included the introduction of $8,000 vouchers for thousands of homeschooling families. The intention behind this was to provide greater educational opportunities, but it appears that some parents are exploiting the program for purposes beyond education.
Recent revelations suggest that some parents are using these taxpayer-funded vouchers for purchases that raise eyebrows, including Disney World passes, PlayStation 5 gaming consoles, and even 55-inch televisions. The misuse of these funds has sparked controversy and raised questions about the oversight of the program.
According to Judd Legum, journalist, lawyer, and political staffer, in private Facebook exchanges shared online, parents have openly discussed how to get passes to Disney World and Universal Studios approved through the taxpayer-funded voucher program.
The expanded voucher program, which now extends to homeschoolers, permits funds to be allocated for “educational expenses.” It also sets up what are known as “education savings accounts,” allowing recipients to spend funds on a range of purchases beyond private school tuition.
Florida has delegated the administration of these vouchers to two private non-profit organizations, Step Up for Students and AAA. These organizations generate revenue based on the number of students they can attract, creating a potential incentive to approve a wide range of expenses.
This summer, Step Up for Students published a list of authorized expenses, and while many of the items are similar to what was permitted for vouchers to students with disabilities in the past, let’s remember they are now available to anyone who receives the award.
The list quickly raised eyebrows as it circulated.
“If we saw school districts spending money like that, we would be outraged,” Damaris Allen, executive director of Families for Strong Public Schools, told Tampa Bay News. “We want to be conservative with our tax dollars. We want to be sure it is being used for worthwhile things.”
By comparison, Allen noted that teachers who want some of the same items for their classrooms would have to pay out of pocket or turn to other fundraising sources.
Conversations among parents in online discussion groups have sparked added concern.
One disturbing example comes from a private Facebook message where a parent inquires about being reimbursed for a $500 PlayStation 5 bundle, including the game “God of War,” even though it’s deemed “not age-appropriate” for their 5-year-old child.
In another message from August 2023, a parent discusses the logistics of using taxpayer funds to purchase an $800 Lego set for their child’s Christmas gift.
During the 2021-22 academic year, Florida K-12 teachers received an average salary of $51,230, ranking 48th in the nation. This significantly lags behind the national average of $66,745. Many Florida teachers often dip into their own pockets to purchase necessary classroom supplies due to budget constraints.
The misuse of taxpayer funds in the school voucher program raises concerns about accountability and the need for stricter oversight. It also underscores the ongoing challenges faced by Florida’s educators who are working tirelessly to provide quality education with limited resources.
Following Florida’s Footsteps
Vouchers – often referred to as “school choice” by proponents – are grants of public taxpayer funds to private entities (parents, schools, scholarship programs, etc.) to fund education at a private school.
The Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott supports vouchers and has made it a priority for his legislative platform. During the regular legislative session in the Spring of this year, Abbott took to the road stumping for vouchers – holding meetings in a number of private, religious schools to make his case. In many of these meetings Abbott used his gubernatorial heft to compel Texas House members opposed to vouchers to attend.
Despite Abbott’s repeated insistence that Texans want vouchers, most Texas House members and their constituents tell a different story. During the 88th regular session, vouchers were pushed several times with the majority of Texas House members pushing back each time.
Critics of vouchers worry about the lack of accountability that would come with using taxpayer dollars to fund vouchers, Florida is a great example of how parents might abuse this system with no repercussions.
Critics of vouchers express concerns about the potential lack of accountability associated with using taxpayer dollars to fund them. Florida serves as a prominent example illustrating how some parents may exploit this system without facing any consequences.
“Any way you slice the pie,” the voucher system will have an impact on public schools, in addition, it will distribute it to schools and programs with “no locally-controlled oversight and no accountability to the people footing the bill – the taxpayers,” Keith Bryant, Superintendent of Schools in Lubbock-Cooper ISD, explained.
Texas public schools are held accountable when it comes to addressing student achievement, school safety, and the curriculum that is being taught. Meanwhile, a voucher program would be handing out taxpayer dollars to people to educate their kids however they want without any oversight.