parental rights

School Vouchers Are Dysfunctional by Design

Photo: Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images/The Washington Post via Getty Im

Florida homeschoolers could take Disney vacations on the taxpayer’s dime thanks to a recently expanded school-voucher program. The new Personalized Education Program, or PEP, “provides about $8,000 annually to thousands of homeschooled students to get taxpayer-funded theme-park passes, big-screen TVs, and other items with an attenuated connection to education,” Judd Legum reported at Popular Information. Theme-park tickets are an approved expense under PEP, and in a private Facebook post obtained by Legum, one parent says they got passes to Disney World and Universal Studios approved through the program. Another asks for advice on getting an annual pass approved.

As Legum notes, “Florida has delegated the administration of the vouchers to two private nonprofit organizations, Step Up for Students and AAA Scholarship Foundation. These nonprofits generate revenue based on how many students they can attract. So, they are incentivized to meet the demands of parents who receive vouchers.” Though theme-park tickets weren’t originally an approved expense, Step Up for Students reversed course after parents complained.

In the Facebook posts, parents treat the program like it’s their private candy jar. They’re right: It is. What Legum uncovered isn’t abuse, exactly. Rather, the program works as designed. Homeschooling parents now enjoy the financial resources and freedom the state of Florida denies public educators. That’s a deliberate choice on the part of Florida lawmakers and a natural outcome of the parental-rights movement.

As implemented by Step Up for Students and AAA Scholarship Foundation, PEP can cover big-screen TVs and expensive Lego sets and even some video-game consoles, if parents have a child with special needs. (In another private Facebook post, a parent asks if they can purchase a PS5 bundle that includes God of War, which is rated for adults only. They said their child is 5.) Homeschooled students can now pay for swing sets, foosball tables, air-hockey tables, skateboards, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, dolls, and stuffed animals through PEP, Legum added.

Defenders of PEP could note here that children don’t all learn the same way. Some video games and dolls can have educational purposes, after all. That is true enough, and I am not here to say that homeschooling families should all adopt the methods my own parents used. My mother typically handed me my schoolbooks and expected me to figure things out on my own. We didn’t bother with physical education, we had a tiny TV, and reading was our primary extracurricular activity. Our financial needs were minimal, mostly out of necessity. I don’t think it’s wrong for kids to have more resources at their disposal and PEP could, in theory, help homeschoolers provide a well-rounded education for their children.

Those concessions can’t dispel some fairly pertinent criticisms of PEP. The program provides beneficial resources for homeschooling parents, but it has little control over how those resources are used. It is entirely possible for a parent to buy a big-screen television under PEP and use it to screen creationist content that has no basis in science. What, then, has a child truly learned? They could take their child to Disney while failing to teach them to read. The state of Florida has placed a level of faith in parents that it never granted public educators. As a consequence, it’s not clear if PEP can really benefit children.

Of course, I don’t believe that PEP was necessarily designed with children in mind. The parental-rights movement does not exist for children, but for parents, and a specific kind of parent at that. Adherents have staked out a hard partisan boundary that keeps out liberals and leftists. (The latter may homeschool for reasons of their own, but are probably less inclined to “take down the education system as we know it today,” as parental-rights pioneer and homeschooling activist Michael Farris recently told fellow travelers.) Furthermore, each expansion of parental rights has come at the expense of the public, and this is true of PEP in a very literal way: The program siphons money from an educational system intended to serve all children. Taxpayers are subsidizing that creationist lesson plan. The goal is to entrench conservative power for future generations, not to expand student horizons.

Yet this untested and frankly anti-democratic program will soon expand. Though PEP is limited currently to 20,000 students, it is set to increase by 40,000 students annually. That makes PEP a major test for the parental-rights movement, as patronized so diligently by Florida’s far-right governor, Ron DeSantis. Parental-rights activists say they know what’s best for their children. Florida is taking them at their word. If parents fail, as some inevitably will, children will bear the cost.

School Vouchers Are Dysfunctional by Design