The Florida Legislature is nearing a collision between the House and Senate on a plan to dramatically expand the Tax Credit Scholarship Program that provides support for students from families of modest means to attend private schools. The expansion would allow sales tax revenues to be diverted into the program and would provide scholarship support for families that are more affluent than those now eligible for the program.
The collision would arise from this: Senate President Don Gaetz said he would support the expansion only if the schools that accept Tax Credit Scholarship students adopt the same testing program now used by the state to evaluate students in traditional and charter schools. The House sponsors of the expansion, including Speaker Will Weatherford, oppose the testing requirement, as do the majority of those involved with the Tax Credit Scholarship program. (See arguments given by House sponsor Manny Diaz here and Patrick Gibbons, who is a writer for redefinedonline and Public Affairs Manager for Step Up for Students, the organization that administers the tax credit scholarship program, here) The primary argument against the testing requirement is that parents know what is best for their children, and that their ability to leave a school through the mechanism of choice provides the best possible accountability.
Step Up for Students also points out that schools hosting tax credit scholarship students are already required to evaluate their students using a valid assessment instrument such as the SAT-10 every year.
But there is a gap in this requirement: Florida’s science standards, as flawed as they are, require students to understand a picture in which a Big Bang began the expansion of the universe about 15 billion years ago and life developed on the Earth by means of natural processes during the last billion years. While traditional public schools and charter schools are presently held to account for their students’ understanding of the science in Florida’s standards, schools hosting tax credit scholarship students are not.
Some of the schools that host tax credit scholarship students are hosted by religious organizations that deny – as a matter of dogma – that the universe is billions of years old or that the development of the universe or life itself can be understood in the framework of natural processes. Brandon Haught of the Florida Citizens for Science says that this the “elephant in the room” in the debate about the expansion of the tax credit scholarship program.
But there are also schools that do not have a religious problem with cosmology or evolution that simply don’t want to be bothered teaching science because it is a low priority. That is problematic as well.
Organizations that receive public funding – including funding through the mechanism of tax credit scholarships – should be accountable to taxpayers for their performance. The argument that parental choice provides sufficient accountability is flawed for two reasons. First, accountability to taxpayers is not the same as accountability to parents. Florida’s academic standards represent the expectations that taxpayers have with respect to the learning of students in Florida’s schools. Second, parents are not always competent to decide what preparation their own children need for the society of the future. In fact, our society is presently experiencing a rapid change in its economic structure that many parents are finding confusing and intimidating.
So I conclude this: Tax credit scholarship schools should demonstrate that their students are meeting Florida’s academic standards in all subjects, including science. I support the position that Senate President Gaetz has taken that schools that host tax credit scholarship students should administer the same testing program as traditional schools and charter schools do. I’ll allow one gap here: If a tax credit scholarship school can find an alternative valid method for demonstrating that its students meet Florida’s standards in math, English language arts and science, then that school will be providing the state with a valuable service.
To return to the religious objection to teaching Florida’s science standards: Requiring that students learn about a 15 billion year-old universe and a scenario in which life developed through natural processes is not the same as imposing these beliefs on students. In fact, teachers have been dealing for a century with the challenge of teaching cosmology and evolution to students who are convinced on religious grounds that the universe is no more than 10,000 years old. How do they do it? They tell their students this: You are required to understand how the scientific community sees the universe and the development of life. You are not required to believe it.
That seems like a reasonable thing to tell our tax credit scholarship schools as well.