Inside the Politics of Florida’s Voucher War: Weatherford vs. Gaetz

The editors of the Tampa Bay Times conclude:

The Senate wisely tabled its bill weeks ago, and noticeably missing from the House bill is the one thing Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, had suggested would be his priority: better assessment of voucher recipients’ learning. The current process for such accountability pales in comparison to the machinations public schools undergo. Private schools are merely required to send voucher students’ results on a nationally norm-referenced test to a single academic to analyze. Nor are voucher schools required to meet the same curriculum standards as public schools. Private schools don’t need to offer a breadth of courses and can forgo teaching some subjects, such as evolution, for example, even though evolution is a part of the state’s academic standards.

For years, voucher supporters have claimed they are just trying to serve low-income students who frequently have more challenges to overcome and are too often zoned for the worst public schools. But the data is far from clear that voucher students actually perform any better in these private settings. And their departure from public schools means overhead costs must be split among fewer students, ultimately leaving less money for the classroom.

This voucher program has always been too clever by half, relying on a convoluted redirect of tax dollars to avoid running afoul of the state Constitution, which prevents public dollars from flowing to religious institutions. And even this year the voucher expansion isn’t standing on its own. House sponsors have cynically included it in the same bill with other proposals related to serving severely disabled students, who are a priority for Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, in line to be the next Senate president.

Florida students don’t need more vouchers. They need a Legislature less interested in gimmicks and more committed to spending the money to do the job right in the public schools, where the state has set clear academic expectations. The Senate needs to stand firm.

Friday’s final House vote for HB 7167 almost went down party lines. The Democrats caucus held together in spite of the shame campaign orchestrated by Step Up for Students against African-American and Jewish legislators. One republican, Rep. Tom Goodson of Titusville, voted against the measure.

The Times mention of Gaetz’ position proves to be particularly poignant. His son, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Niceville) was one of two republicans vote for Rep. Karen Castor Dentel’s (D- Maitland) amendment which would have required voucher students to take the same tests as public school students.

“I see teachers who are public school teachers, who believe in school choice,” Gaetz said. “And they say to me, ‘Matt, I want to compete against private schools and charter schools, but when you measure me against teachers in those schools, can we at least use the same ruler for measurement?’ I think it’s a fair ask.”

Was the younger Gaetz throwing down the gauntlet on behalf of his father? It sure looks like it. Senate leadership has been pretty clear on accountability and a voucher bill has no chance of getting to Rick Scott’s desk without it.

What’s driving this in the House? The shrill rhetoric from republican voucherists must make some of the adults in the Senate cringe. Perhaps they’ve been enabled by Speaker Will Weatherford’s hubris. Recognized as one of “Ten Rising Stars Under 40” at CPAC in March 2013, Weatherford seeks higher office. What better way to make a name for yourself than to expand the most sweeping state expansion of vouchers to date?

The elder Gaetz probably won’t ever again seek public office and wants to shepard his son’s promising political career. Unlike Weatherford, both Gaetz’ have connections to  public schools. The elder Gaetz is a former school board member and school superintendent. The younger attended one of the state’s top high schools, Niceville HS, and maintains relationships with many of his old teachers. Unlike Weatherford, who would like to lead a dismantling of our public school system, the Gaetz’ probably don’t want that. Moreover, both likely see Weatherford as a potential rival.




About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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