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Disney tickets, PS5s, and big-screen TVs: Florida parents exploit DeSantis’ school vouchers Judd Legum

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(Photo by Orjan F. Ellingvag/Dagbladet/Corbis via Getty Images)

Florida parents are taking advantage of an expanded school voucher program championed by Governor Ron DeSantis (R), according to messages from private Facebook groups obtained by Popular Information. The private Facebook messages reveal how parents are using the new Personalized Education Program (PEP), which 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. PEP is limited to 20,000 students for the 2023-24 academic year but will expand dramatically in future years, increasing by 40,000 students annually. 

In one exchange posted in a private Facebook group last month, a parent inquires if anyone has had luck getting passes to Disney World approved through the program. Another parent responds that she was able to get passes for Disney World and Universal Studios paid for with taxpayer funds. 

The members of the group then discuss how to characterize unlimited annual and semi-annual passes in order to secure approval.

Voucher funds are available to many more students this academic year as a result of legislation signed by DeSantis last March. DeSantis hailed the new law as “the largest expansion of education choice in the history of these United States.” Previously, the voucher program was restricted mostly to low-income families. The money could only be used for private school tuition or transportation to an out-of-district public school. The new law eliminated the income caps and allowed thousands of homeschooled students to receive the approximately $8,000 voucher as an Educational Savings Account, which can be used for any approved expense. (Students who attend private school and have leftover funds can now also spend the money this way.) A small number of these accounts existed prior to the new law, but they were limited to students with special needs. 

Florida has delegated the administration of the vouchers to two private non-profit organizations, Step Up for Students and AAA Scholarship Foundation. These non-profits generate revenue based on how many students they can attract. So, they are incentivized to meet the demands of parents who receive vouchers. 

As the Tampa Bay Times reported, Step Up for Student’s new guide to approved expenses for recipients of PEP vouchers in the 2023-24 academic year authorizes the purchase of theme park tickets. Theme park tickets were previously a prohibited expense, but Step Up for Students’ “reconsidered after hearing from parents about the potential benefits.” 

In another private Facebook message obtained by Popular Information, dated August 9, one parent laments that she has an “old” TV that “could really use replacing.” She asks whether she could use voucher funds to replace the TV if she was also buying a “screen and projector.” One group member tells her that she can buy a new 55-inch TV while another assures her she can buy “all three” —  the new TV, a screen, and a projector — with voucher funds.

The Step Up for Students purchasing guide authorizes the purchase of TVs up to 55 inches. Public schools also purchase televisions but those are used by hundreds or thousands of students. Televisions purchased through the PEP voucher program will only benefit a few students, at most. 

In another August 2023 message, a parent sorts through the logistics of using taxpayer funds to buy “an $800 lego set for my kid for Christmas.” 

Step Up for Students permits all voucher recipients to spend up to $400 annually on Legos. 

In a private Facebook message dated June 12, a parent says their PlayStation 3 “isn’t doing great,” and she needs “to get something new.” She asks whether she will be reimbursed for a $500 PlayStation 5 bundle that includes “God of War,” even though the game is “not age appropriate” for her 5-year-old daughter. 

Step Up for Students authorizes voucher funds to purchase video game consoles, but only for special needs students. Other approved expenses for all homeschooled students this academic year include swing sets, foosball tables, air hockey tables, skateboards, kayaks, standup paddleboards, dolls, and stuffed animals. 

Jeanne Allen, founder of the National Center for Education Reform and a proponent of vouchers, defended these kinds of expenditures in an interview. Allen said, “young people today… expect 21st century approaches to learning and recreational opportunities for their physical and mental well-being.”

While Florida spends billions on vouchers, the state’s public school teachers remain underpaid  

The Florida voucher program for homeschooled students is part of a larger and rapidly expanding state voucher program. Doug Tuthill, President of Step Up For Students, posted on August 26 that his organization had already awarded vouchers to 410,000 full-time students. 

With an average award of about $8,000, that means Florida is spending over $3.3 billion on these student vouchers. And there are many more students who receive vouchers through AAA Scholarship Foundation. Many students will use their vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Beneficiaries include wealthy families who have sent their children to private schools for years without subsidies. 

Holly Bullard, Chief Strategy Officer for the Florida Policy Institute, told Popular Information that the “real scandal” is that, while DeSantis pumps billions into vouchers, Florida teachers are grossly underpaid compared to their counterparts in other states. 

According to the National Education Association, Florida K-12 teachers were paid an average of $51,230 during the 2021-22 academic year, which ranked 48th in the nation. The national average was $66,745. Florida also ranks 43rd in the amount spent per public school student. Moreover, many Florida teachers “spend their own money on necessary classroom supplies.” According to A Gift for Teachers, a central Florida non-profit that purchases school supplies, “some teachers will spend up to $500 or more.” 

The underinvestment in Florida public schools is having an impact on teacher recruitment and retention. The Florida Education Association reports that, as the new school year starts, there are “8,000 teachers and 6,000 support staff vacancies across the state.” The group describes the situation as “one of the worst teacher shortage situations in the nation.”

 

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June 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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My First Job, at the Stanford Internet Observatory Julia Steinberg

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Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised I’d “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time,” writes Julia Steinberg. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

The Stanford Internet Observatory—a research center tasked with rooting out “misinformation” on social media—is shutting its doors. Chances are if you’ve heard of the SIO it was in a scathing piece from Michael Shellenberger or Matt Taibbi, who have accused the center of being a key node in the censorship-industrial complex.

It was also my first employer. Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised to “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time, to develop a novel curriculum on trust and safety that is a first in computer science, and to translate our research discoveries into training and policy innovations for the public good.” To me, that meant ending internet abuse like the glamorization of anorexia on social media or financial scams that steal billions every year. But mostly I worked on the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), which SIO ran during the 2020 and 2022 elections. The purpose of that project was to identify so-called “fake news” spreading on social media. 

In actuality, SIO hired a load of interns to scan social media for posts deemed to be mis- and disinformation. It turns out that the posts we students flagged were often sent along to moderators at Twitter (now X), Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, which took them down in order to quash dissenting viewpoints—viewpoints that sometimes ended up being right, as in the case of Covid likely being the result of a lab leak, or Hunter Biden’s hard drive being his actual hard drive—not Russian disinformation. 

Thanks to the work of independent journalists, the SIO’s work has come under a lot of scrutiny, including in Washington. A recent House Judiciary Committee report alleges that, by cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security, the SIO’s Election Integrity Partnership “provided a way for the federal government to launder its censorship activities in hopes of bypassing both the First Amendment and public scrutiny.” 

The SIO has stated that “Stanford has not shut down or dismantled SIO as a result of outside pressure. SIO does, however, face funding challenges as its founding grants will soon be exhausted.” But on June 13, Platformer reported that much of SIO’s staff was on the way out: “Its founding director, Alex Stamos, left his position in November. Renee DiResta, its research director, left last week after her contract was not renewed. One other staff member’s contract expired this month, while others have been told to look for jobs elsewhere, sources say.”

The Supreme Court will soon rule on a case, Murthy v. Missouri, that addresses whether the U.S. government should be able to collaborate with social media companies to censor commentary. The plaintiffs, in their brief, lambast SIO for its role in abetting government censorship. We’ll be watching that case closely.

Julia Steinberg is an intern at The Free Press. Read her piece on the college dropout who unlocked the secrets of ancient Rome using AI. And follow her on X @Juliaonatroika.

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My Promise to Palestine Chris Hedges

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When I accepted the Tafik Diab Prize for my writing on the genocide in Gaza in Cairo on June 10 I explained why the cartoonist Joe Sacco and I are planning to do our next book together on Gaza.

Written speech:

I would like to start with a story that happened to me in Gaza on October 5, 2000. One day I was working on a report at Natzarim (Jewish settlement). There were Palestinian boys near me. The boys threw rocks towards the Israeli army. A soldier shot one of the boys — and the boy died. Four boys each lifted up a limb and we ran. The incident aftected me to such an extent that I did not shave for three weeks. After three weeks, I went to visit the boy’s house to meet his family. I told his mother I was with her son when he was killed. The mother told me that when her younger son heard that his brother had been killed he went into the kitchen, and then he left the house. After ten minutes she asked her husband where her son had gone. They went out to look for him and saw him in the street with a knife in his hand.

She asked him, “Where are you going?”

He answered, “I am going to kill Jews.” I have never been able to forget that child. I often wonder where he is. He would be a man in his thirties now. Is he still alive? Married? Does he have children? Are he and his family frightened of the bombing? Where have they taken refuge? God willing, I will write a book on Gaza with the cartoonist Joe Sacco, the author of “Palestine” and “Footnotes in Gaza.” During that time I will look for him, I will complete his story and the stories of many others. Israel is determined to erase them from existence and from history. This is my promise.

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