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Here’s what school vouchers could cost Pinellas and Hillsborough public schools | Column

Rep. Kathy Castor writes that vouchers, with little accountability, will dangerously siphon off your tax dollars in greater amounts every year with no plans to backfill and support our public schools.

Florida public schools and their students are at serious risk under the radical tax giveaway scheme being fast-tracked by the Florida Legislature. House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 202 would divert public money for unchecked education “vouchers.” They could cost up to $4 billion in the first year alone.

In Hillsborough County, schools would lose an estimated $291 million in the 2023-2024 school year; in Pinellas County, $171 million. That’s just the start. The amounts are so large that public schools will face enormous cuts to basic curriculum, transportation, sports, arts and upkeep. This is a recipe for disaster for students, a well-trained workforce and the economic future of Florida. The radical scheme must be stopped.

Florida already ranks 43rd in public education funding — more than $5,000 behind the national average. Yet, private profiteers and charter schools continue to press for more. Much of the diverted cash goes to corporations that do not follow public accountability and civil rights laws such as services for students with special needs. Our educators, students and schools cannot afford this massive giveaway.

The Florida Legislature already falls short each year in fully funding a high-quality education for every student as required by our state constitution. Their last voucher expansion actually cut funding for public schools by 9% in the 2022-2023 school year. Under the new legislation, state aid per pupil will fall by $1,340 in Pinellas County and $879 in Hillsborough County.

Public money would be better spent on teacher salaries to retain and recruit educators and properly funding our traditional public schools where the vast majority of Florida parents choose to send their children.

In our constitution, Florida voters directed the state to treat public education as the paramount purpose of state government. House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 202 do the opposite. They would dangerously siphon off your tax dollars in greater amounts every year with no plans to backfill and support our public schools. Voters in many counties approved millage increases to support public schools, but the voucher scheme would drain state funding in such large amounts that it will nullify this investment from local taxpayers.

Floridians expect state leaders to use our tax dollars to strengthen public schools, not divert public dollars with no accountability. Please weigh in with your local legislators to oppose the voucher giveaway.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat, represents District 14, which includes Tampa and part of St. Petersburg.