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.