By William Mattox
Guest columnist
September 11, 2014
When the Florida courts consider several lawsuits filed recently by the Florida Education Association and other anti-voucher groups, I hope someone will call me as a witness. Because I am a public school parent who agrees that some of our education tax dollars aren’t being spent in a manner that serves the public interest.
And I’ve got a story that illustrates the current public-private problem very well.
Last year, my youngest son took part in the history fair competition at his public high school. Since he’s a bit of a wiseacre, my son did his project on the 1950 Florida Senate race in which George Smathers supposedly smeared his opponent, Claude Pepper, with some outrageous accusations that weren’t dirty, but sure sounded that way to unsophisticated voters. (i.e. “My opponent’s mother is a sexagenerian, his sister is a thespian, and his brother subscribes to a phonographic magazine.”)
My son’s project took third place at the Florida History Fair. And when a scheduling problem prevented one of the top two finishers from attending National History Day, my son got invited to go to the national competition as an alternate.
Thankfully, our local school officials had funds to defray the travel costs to Washington, D.C. And they not only reimbursed the full amount promised, they also covered a small amount more because “it’s the end of the fiscal year and we haven’t yet spent all our money.”
Needless to say, my son had a great time competing at National History Day. And I would have been thoroughly pleased with the whole experience had I had not been aware of a great injustice surrounding this trip.
You see, among the students also representing Florida at the national competition were three middle school boys who placed first in their division at the Florida History Fair and also received special recognition at National History Day. In fact, their World War II documentary was so good that several local organizations invited them to show it at special programs honoring veterans in our community.
Nevertheless, these three boys were denied any sort of travel reimbursement from our school district. Their crime? They didn’t attend a public school. So, they were all expected to foot their own travel bill. Even though their parents are all taxpayers. And even though the boys were representing our community in Washington. And even though they were contributing to the life of our community by showing their film at special events honoring veterans.
It should be noted that one government agency — the Museum of Florida History — did not discriminate against these middle school boys. It awarded book store gift certificates (vouchers of a sort) to all the Florida History Fair winners, no matter what type of school they attended.
So, what does this episode have to do with the lawsuits introduced this summer?
In Florida today, there are two schools of thought about public funding in education. One says the government should direct all education dollars to schools the Florida Education Association likes — namely, public schools like the one my son attends. The other school of thought has a more inclusive mindset, similar to the Museum of Florida History. It says public education dollars should be available to all of Florida’s children, regardless of what type of school they attend.
Lest there be any doubt, my wife and I like our son’s public school. And we’re very grateful for the educational opportunities he’s received there, including the chance to go to National History Day.
But we don’t want our gain to come at others’ expense. And we hope the Florida Courts will affirm the inclusive philosophy of education that led the Legislature to create the programs now under attack (tax-credit scholarships and personalized learning accounts).
For we recognize that many of the students attending non-public schools in Florida today will grow up to play important roles in our communities. And we know that some of these students, like those three middle school boys, are already contributing to our shared public life in very meaningful ways.
William Mattox is a registered independent who serves as a fellow at The James Madison Institute.