Report: Tax credit scholarships (“vouchers”) will save Florida taxpayers $57.9 million next year

Critics of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program often say it’s a “drain” on public school funding. But yet another credible report underscores how much that’s not the case.

The little-known “impact” report, issued last week by Florida’s Revenue Estimating Conference, brings genuine financial context to the scholarship program, which helps low-income K-12 students. It says, with a degree of professional precision, that the Florida Tax Credit scholarship will save taxpayers $57.9 million next year (line 55, page 36).

That number is at odds with the financial lament of some opponents, such as Rep. Dwight Bullard, a Democrat from Miami-Dade. In his passionate opposition to HB 859, a bill that that expands the program and now sits on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk, Bullard told his colleagues the scholarship “has cost all of your respective school districts million and millions of dollars in lost revenue” and tried to pit scholarship schools against district schools.

“We’re talking about funding a program that, yes, we can all agree is successful,” Bullard said. “We can always point to the fact that it helps low-income and minority students get out of a bad situation and get into a better one. … But here’s the question: When are we going to stop adding to the bad situation that they’re trying to run from?”

Bullard’s plea to increase funding for public schools is sincere and commendable, but his attempt to use scholarships as a foil is neither.

The Revenue Estimating Conference is the official prognosticator for the state, and its staff employs a sophisticated and conservative approach in gauging the cost of the scholarship. In fact, the conference doesn’t even count every poor student on the scholarship – and the average household income this year is only 12 percent above poverty – as a student who would otherwise have attended public school and impacted the public school budget. Of those who would, it says the state would save only 86 cents on the operating dollar and no construction costs.

The $57.9 million in projected savings is also not the first stab at this equation. A separate state oversight agency, the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability, issued an in-depth report that found a $38.9 million savings in 2007-08. Two other independent groups – Florida TaxWatch and the Collins Center for Public Policy – issued similar findings.

The equation is pretty simple. The state, by and large, will be paying for every economically disadvantaged student to attend school. If the student attends a traditional public school, the state spends $6,225 in operational expenses alone this year. If the student tries a scholarship, the state spends no more than $4,011 on everything. So for Rep. Bullard to argue that districts lose “millions and millions of dollars” is to imply that school districts should be paid for students whether or not they attend and are taught.

No public education learning option should come at the financial expense of other options, so the Revenue Conference numbers in Florida are instructive. The students in a program that Rep. Bullard describes as “successful” are not “adding to the bad situation” in traditional public schools; they are saving money that can be used to enhance those public schools.

That’s a financial fact.

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5 Responses to Report: Tax credit scholarships (“vouchers”) will save Florida taxpayers $57.9 million next year

  1. Joe March 20, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    Jon:

    Thanks for the interesting piece on the economic impact of the “scholarship” program. While the state does save money, the school which would have served the student loses the opportunity to serve the child and the accompanying revenue.

    Now, the argument could be made that if this were to occur with enough frequency the school would either have to improve to attract and retain students or it would continue to lose funding and, in time, like any failing business, it would fold.

    In my opinion, voucher pro-proponents should not apologize for putting these competitive pressures on under-performing schools – if parents have a choice and they exercise it – who is to blame?

    There is no need to “beat around the bush” or “sugar coat” the fact that charters and vouchers do “hurt” schools that are not getting the job done for the students or the parents. Through this process the public schools have to elevate their “game” or go out of business – it’s called competition and it makes everyone better. No need to apologize.

    If a school wants to keep its funding, they should take care of the needs of their students and parents – end of story.

  2. Jon East March 20, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    Joe,

    Thanks for the response, and I agree that I have a definite propensity to sugarcoat. In this case, I just don’t view this as a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers. Public school districts similarly offer choice and magnet programs that entice students to leave zoned schools, which theoretically “hurts” the zoned schools in the same way as you suggest vouchers do. But the districts in those cases don’t view that as harmful because they embrace those choices as a service to parents and students. In other words, they are empowering parents to make choices, which also implies that the money follows the child.

    One narrower argument we hear, and to which I am also sensitive, is that each school has a fixed cost for electricity or a classroom teacher that is not lowered when one child leaves. But that genuinely feels like a red herring to me. Aside from the fact that schools don’t offer to return money when an extra child enters this hypothetical classroom, the ebb and flow of students in and out of every school building everyday is subject to so many variables that it is nearly impossible to single out one. And the tax credit scholarship itself is heavily concentrated in urban areas. For example, two adjoining zip codes in Orlando have more than 1,000 students on the scholarship. The district might have to build an entirely new school if they were to return in mass.

    Jon

  3. Joe March 20, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    Jon:

    The choice options offered by public school districts, particularly magnets, are primarily used as tools to entice more affluent students to attend lower performing schools. This is a common approach to “driving” academic achievement at chronically “failing” schools – in reality this is a shell game.

    This type of strategy is not seen as harmful by the district because it helps them “launder” their school grades – the magnet students artificially boost the school metrics and the district can take credit for the “improving” school grades.

    The sad reality is that the traditional students get left behind while the administration can now claim they have “turned” the school around.

    To your point, the districts embrace choice as long as the choice is one of the dishes on their menu.

    Parents are waking up, districts actually have to perform and meet expectations – parents and students can vote with their feet and dollars and more and more will do so.

    No need for apologies – the districts got overly complacent and apathetic and you are providing a much needed reality check that will benefit kids, especially those that are chronically left behind.

  4. Sara Beth Baker March 22, 2012 at 5:26 am #

    Thank you and God bless you both! I am the sole parent of a 10 year old in Ave Maria – outside of Naples, Florida. We are extremely grateful recipients of an amazingly generous Step-Up for Students scholarship at Donahue Academy. I shudder to think what my daughter would be missing academically, spiritually and socially if the scholarship did not exist and we had no choice of schools.

    I come from a family of more than a dozen public school educators, state directors, principals and even a president of a large state university….none of them likes to hear why I’m a proponent of private schools. They are all good, well-meaning educators but, mainly choose to teach, etc. at public schools because they make more money…which is precisely one of the main reasons I choose for my daughter to be taught by private school teachers…who tend to be more focused on the students’ education and well-being instead of their own annual income…which is most often too high, keeping the public school operating costs and our taxes too high as well! Not to mention the adverse effects from the over-politicalization of public school administrations, boards and superintendents. It’s so sad to see the public school systems become just another arm of bigger and bigger government, with the ability to trickle down their big government ideals into the minds and hearts of these innocent kids! ALLELUIA we are blessed with a choice of schools and the “donated” means to access them!!!

    Thank you and may God bless all educators, especially those who teach for the right reasons, and the scholarship benefactors who provide a choice of schools for those of us who could not otherwise afford a choice!

    Pax, Sara Beth

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