Groups call for overhaul of Florida school voucher program, changes in Baker Act use

VIDEO: There’s a push in Florida to overhaul the system that gives students scholarships to attend private schools.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The battle over public versus private schools.

There’s a push in Florida to overhaul the system that gives students scholarships to attend private schools.

There was a massive online rally on Tuesday hosted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, the state-wide PTA and more than a dozen other organizations.

The groups all say the use of school vouchers diverts badly-needed funds from public schools.

“What we are fighting for is to keep public schools money in the public schools,” said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP.

But supporters of school vouchers argue they give parents other options besides public schools particularly when they’re low-performing. Opponent and student activist Jade Thomson said her argument is simple.

“The situation with the vouchers is just messed up,” Thomson said. “What I understand is that they’re taking public funds that should go to public schools and giving it away to private schools which means that the resources that public schools need are being lost to private schools.”

More than 160,000 children are currently taking advantage of the state’s five voucher programs, according to a report from the Orlando Sentinel. The state is spending about $1.3 billion in public money to pay for those scholarships.

Most are awarded to students from low-income families or those placed in foster care and some are given to students with disabilities or students in low-performing schools.

Several organizations want state lawmakers to prioritize public school funding and scale back the money going to private schools through vouchers.

“They should understand that the answer is not to keep diverting money from our public schools, but to invest in our future, in our children so they have the resources they need to support all children and become profiting, successful adults,” said Florida PTA President Jennifer Martinez.

Another big topic of discussion at the virtual rally was the increasing use of the Baker Act, the law that allows law enforcement officers to detain children who they believe are a danger to themselves or others.

More than 37,000 children in Florida were detained under the Baker Act last year and some critics of the procedure say it’s needlessly traumatizing to children.

The Baker Act has been around for nearly 50 years and is meant to give law enforcement or school authorities the ability to detain people who are impaired because of a mental illness.

On Tuesday, critics said it’s being applied far too often and on children, far too young.

About a year ago, News4Jax reported when a Jacksonville 6-year-old was taken out of school by police put in a JSO cruiser and taken to a mental health facility. She had been “Baker-Acted.”

Years earlier, the girl had been diagnosed with ADHD and her mother said she was having a tantrum in school but said the school and police crossed a line.

“When they are Baker-Acted, they are handcuffed by police, they are placed in cop cars and deeply traumatized as they are carted off for days at a time and taken to psychiatric facilities. They may or may not get to speak to their families for those days,” said Bacardi Jackson with Southern Poverty Law Center.

More than 37-thousand children in Florida were detained under the Baker Act last year. Now there's a push to change this. News4Jax reporter Joe McLean is here.

Pediatrician Tommy Schechtman said that trauma doesn’t go away after the holding time of 72 hours.

“We are in fact causing more trauma to our children that will be life-long,” said Schechtman. “This is a trauma that we are inflicting on our children that, as a pediatrician, I am just horrified by this. This is, in my mind, a case of child neglect, maybe even bordering on child abuse.”

The more than 20 groups that held the rally are not saying they want the Baker Act to be repealed, but that schools and law enforcement agencies need to use it more sparingly and only when absolutely needed.

There’s are bills in the state legislature that would both expand the Baker Act’s use and another that would fund safe-school officers and require parental notification, a bill the coalition is backing.