School vouchers: A parent’s nightmare

Left, Rebecca Forbes-Levy and Sen. Janet Cruz (D) Tampa

BY JODI YONDER, Contributor

MIAMI — Rebecca Forbes-Levy is very passionate about education.  Like many African-American parents, she wanted to make sure her only son received the best education available. Unfortunately, like many parents, she bought into the Mckay Scholarship program, which is code for vouchers. It began a nightmarish journey that Forbes-Levy painfully recalls.

“I went to Tallahassee and spoke against these programs before the legislature for at least three years in a row,” Forbes-Levy lamented. “I did not want anyone to go through what my family experienced. It was devastating.”

Vouchers use Florida taxpayer dollars to pay for recipients to attend private schools. The pitch is always the same. For African Americans, the opportunity to send their child to a so-called private school is alluring. It is also presented as an upscale alternative to public schools.

But the private school label cannot cover the inadequacy beneath.  Forbes-Levy found that her son’s time in a Homestead pop-up school cost thousands more than the vouchers covered and was a curriculum wasteland.

Her son graduated with worthless unacceptable credit hours. No college would accept him. He had to go back to public school to get the proper credits to attend college. Forbes-Levy quit her job to help guide her son through his two-year high school redo.

Forbes-Levy’s son will graduate from Florida International University in June. The traumatic experience was not lost on a mother who knew that the voucher education came with a price.  She is still indignant when she tells the story of fraud. But sheer determination helped her realize the dream despite the bad experience.

But voucher advocates and their host schools are determined to boost the voucher budget share by another half a billion dollars this year. Education experts and numerous experts describe the effort as a “hollowing out “and resegregation of public schools.”

Now Florida Republicans are working at a fierce pace to pass their expansion effort. The plan’s income threshold is middle income, and recipients have “education savings accounts” or debit cards to pretty much spend as they like. An extraordinary addition is legislation that includes students who have never enrolled in public school.

The controversy continues because voucher school records, curriculum, standards and regulations are lax. It’s near impossible to find out how the money is spent and on what. Requests for public information on the for-profit schools or regulations go unanswered.

The schools rarely last long. Many African-American students and their parents are forced to return to public schools because the vouchers do not deliver on the better education promise. But the exploitation continues. School owners have received $5.5 billion in state tax dollars since 2014.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped lawmakers’ efforts to funnel money out of public-school classrooms to voucher schools.

“Ninety percent of our students attend public schools, and we see school districts that are reeling from the increased economic burden of this (COVID-19) pandemic. The expansion of these education savings accounts as a backdoor to funnel these public dollars into private schools, in my opinion, is inexcusable,” said Senator Janet Cruz (D-Tampa).

In the House, the bill sponsor speaks with pride about the impact of the law. “But again, the big picture is let’s get something done that makes the world better for parents and students,” said bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican.

Judging by the experiences of parents like Forbes-Levy, the voucher efforts keep hurting the families it is supposed to be helping.

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