Author Archive | Jon East

Why are the FEA, PTA blocking school choice for low-income parents?

Why would the Florida Education Association fight school choice options aimed at helping the students who struggle the most in public schools?

Why would the Florida Education Association fight school choice options aimed at helping the students who struggle the most in public schools?

Editor’s note: This post recently appeared as an op-ed in the Gainesville Sun. It was published before the House proposal was changed to include no increase in the program cap. Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

In a state that gives parents an expanding array of options on where to send their children to school, the Legislature is looking this year to improve a choice it gives to the least among us. That some education groups are fighting it is disappointing.

The bill provides for a modest expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship, which this year serves 59,765 low-income students in 1,425 private schools. The average household income for these students is only 9 percent above poverty. Two-thirds are black or Hispanic, more than half live with a single parent.

Research shows us they were struggling academically in the public school they left behind, and standardized tests show us they are now achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all incomes nationally.

Why would worthy organizations, such as the Florida Education Association and the Florida PTA, fight so hard to deny this opportunity?

Many of the opponents are turning to distortion and deception, as well. One of them wrote in The Sun recently that the bill represented “the largest expansion of private religious school vouchers in state history” and would “divert $2.3 billion… between now and 2016.”

For the record, the bill would add $30 million to the cap for each of the next five years, which amounts to an 8.3 percent increase next year and 3.5 percent increase in the fifth year. Those increases add up to $90 million by 2016, not $2.3 billion. Continue Reading →

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Parents shouldn’t be fighting each other over school choice

Segal

Segal

Editor’s note: This post first appeared as an op-ed in the Tampa Tribune. Step Up For Students, which administers the state’s tax credit scholarship program, co-hosts this blog.

Eileen Segal is a gracious Florida PTA president who welcomed to her annual conference last summer a contingent of low-income parents who take advantage of a state scholarship for their children.

So she was speaking from the heart in a crowded House committee room last month when she said: “What you’re doing here today is very sad; it hurts my heart. Parents should not fight against parents. We all need to work together because we all want the same thing for our children — the best-quality education.”

Eileen is right, and yet she was part of a PTA group that had come to the Legislature to condemn the educational option that parents of 60,000 of the state’s poorest students have chosen this year. The audience that day was crowded with scholarship parents and their children, who in some cases sat next to PTA parents who stood on the other political side.

The PTA is not alone in this regard. A group called Parents Across Florida has written rather viciously about how the Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income children should be abandoned, even arguing that “vouchers actually strip away parents’ ultimate choice” and that parents want only neighborhood schools and “don’t want to be forced to shop around.” A group called Fund Education Now, which is led by three women who have played a constructive role in fighting for greater investment, has called the legislative effort to expand the scholarship to more underprivileged children “shameless.”

This jarring juxtaposition is hard to miss and harder to explain.

The general politics of school choice is relatively clear. Many of the established education groups reflexively oppose initiatives that are viewed as Republican priorities, which is why Democrats — even those who have supported help for low-income students in the past — are apt to run to the other corner. School boards see it as their mission to fight any program that reduces enrollment in the schools they operate, and the Florida Education Association continues to fight any option whose teachers are not represented by the union. But do parents really have to fight against each other? Continue Reading →

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The facts behind claims of school choice Armageddon

sky is falling 2Editor’s note: This post first appeared as an op-ed in today’s Tallahassee Democrat.

Florida is looking to let 5,700 more underprivileged children attend a private school on scholarship next year, and yet some of the opponents are making it sound like a form of educational Armageddon.

In her Wednesday My View, Fund Education Now co-founder Kathleen Oropeza, whose group plays an important role in pushing for genuine investment in public education, used the Tax Credit Scholarship expansion bill as a rhetorical punching bag. It is “an unprecedented, shameless raid on our most sacrosanct revenue stream — the Florida sales and use tax” or “the largest expansion of private religious-school vouchers in state history” or “sticking taxpayers with the $2 billion tab.” The scholarship program has “zero accountability” and “offers no proof the children are learning.”

These would be heady accusations if they were true. None is.

For the record, the bill that is headed to the House floor will increase the tax credit cap next year, $358 million, by 8.3 percent and by 3.5 percent in the fifth year. For each of the next five years, the cap increase possible under current law would be bumped up by $30 million. Add those all together and you get $150 million, not $2 billion. This bill certainly will help families that have been shut out under the current cap, but it by no means makes history.

The “shameless raid” on sales taxes speaks to a provision that added a sixth tax source against which corporations could claim dollar-for-dollar tax credits. The pool of potential sales tax credits is certainly larger than any of the existing five, but that’s immaterial because the sources are collectively governed by one tax credit cap. Here’s the kicker, though: The sales tax credit has been removed. No bill currently under consideration contains it.

The assertion that there is “no proof the children are learning” ignores the six annual testing reports issued to date by the state Department of Education. Students on the scholarship are required to take nationally norm-referenced tests, and the reports have consistently issued two findings: (1) The students who choose the scholarship are the lowest academic performers from the public schools they leave behind, and (2) scholarship students are achieving the same gains in reading and math annually as students of all income levels. Senate President Don Gaetz has raised a legitimate question about whether scholarship students should take a state, rather than national, test; but the state has plenty of proof about academic performance. Continue Reading →

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Twisted words and imagined conspiracy

funhouse mirrorHaving written editorials for a metropolitan newspaper for more than 20 years, I’ve had more than my share of those who have adamantly disagreed. But I’m not sure I’ve ever had someone so willfully distort what I wrote as Valerie Strauss did on Saturday.

Whether you think the original post on Friday, “The genuine surge in scholarship applications,” was fact or fiction, the point was to demonstrate the clear uptick in enrollment demand for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship over the past four years. In turn, the Washington Post blogger responded with a headline that read “Long ‘waiting list’ for Florida vouchers doesn’t actually exist” and a lead that said: “This belongs in the you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff category.” Her only seeming recognition that I made precisely the opposite point was a cryptic introductory phrase in the last sentence: “Whatever the demand …”

For the record, the scholarship processing team at Step Up For Students, which administers the scholarship and sponsors this blog, stopped keeping a waiting list not because the list had dwindled but because it had become unmanageably large. Being on a waiting list carries with it an expectation that you might still have a chance, and our applications experts felt it had come to the point where Step Up was peddling false hope.

That’s why applications in 2013 were cut off earlier than in 2012 even though the program expanded by 8,690 students. It’s why they are likely to be cut off in 2014 earlier than in both previous years, even though enrollment will increase again by another 8,000 students (more if legislation this year passes). Though students were not placed on a waiting list last year, the reality is that 94,104 of them had begun an application before Step Up stopped processing. As of Sunday, 80,354 had started applications for the fall.

The most befuddling part about the way scholarship opponents have seized on this scholarship demand question is that it doesn’t really matter under the law. The program will grow in size only if eligible students sign up for it. The tax-credited contributions made to scholarship organizations, under any-sized tax credit cap, must be used for scholarships or returned to the state treasury. That’s in the law. So the cap could be increased to $1 billion next year but if only 60,000 students showed up, the same as this year, roughly three-fourths of those dollars would end up back in the government’s bank.

As a conspiracy theory, this lacks even the conspiracy.

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The genuine surge in scholarship applications in Florida

FTC enrollment growthA Florida House committee debate this morning about a new Tax Credit Scholarship bill included some fair questions, obvious skepticism and dueling numbers about how many students want in. One reason for the confusion might be this little-known fact: Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that processes the applications, has stopped keeping waiting lists.

That may sound like an alarming development, but the reason is not what you might think. The people who process applications at Step Up, which publishes this blog, have become so overwhelmed in recent years that they no longer wanted to give low-income families false hope. They concluded that the main reason for the waiting list was mostly for show, and they wanted no part of that.

So when we are asked by lawmakers or reporters or state officials about a waiting list, we try our best to respond by describing the accelerated pace of applications. That trend is clear.

In 2012-13, the cap limit of $229 million allowed Step Up to serve 51,075 students. That year, it was receiving so many applications that it shut off newcomers beginning on Aug. 3, a couple of weeks before school started. And it’s worth noting here that scholarship parents are no different than the adults who are being asked to get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act: they often wait until the last minute. Even so, 87,540 students had already started an application.

For the current school year, 2013-14, the cap limit of $286 million has allowed Step Up to serve 59,765 low-income students. But applications were coming in so fast last spring that the processing team decided to stop taking them on June 28, about as month-and-a-half before school started. Even so, 94,104 students had already started.

That number from June is  the origin of the 34,000 “waiting list” that has been asserted many times during the current debate. In reality, it’s not a waiting list, but it’s a powerful indication of demand.

A more compelling gauge, though, may be the applications that are being received right now. A new school year starts in less than five months, applications are in full swing, and the current cap limit of $358 million should allow Step Up to serve about 68,000 students. As of today, 79,915 students have already started an application. So unless there is a precipitous drop in applications, Step Up will shut it down early again – maybe earlier than last year – so as not to create false hope among those who waited too long.

This trend suggests that tens of thousands of students will again be shut out.

The extreme skeptics will question whether Step Up is reporting these numbers faithfully and accurately. But one outside check is enrollment itself. The state Department of Education verifies and reports student enrollment in every quarter and year-end, and the chart attached to this post is pointed distinctly upward. It shows that enrollment is increasing precisely as fast as the caps allow, which is an independent source of data that reinforces what Step Up is reporting in applications.

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Dispelling distortions about Florida’s school choice scholarship bill

FTC cap growth

A House committee this morning released a new version of a bill that would expand Tax Credit Scholarships for low-income children in Florida and, given some of the outsized claims about its impact, it’s worth reviewing the bill’s actual targets for growth.

The truth is, there is less there than meets the eye.

The scholarship program has a cap that limits the tax credits and, by extension, the number of disadvantaged students who can be served. And the degree to which the bill actually increases that cap has become something of a rhetorical sport for opponents and, in some cases, even the media.

This year, 59,765 students are using the school choice scholarship in 1,425 private schools. Various accounts have described the bill as doubling that enrollment, with one today suggesting the bill would add 50,000 new students. In committee, one state representative dismissed it as “too much, too fast.” A Gainesville Sun column even branded it as “the largest expansion of private religious school vouchers in state history,” adding, “they’re sticking taxpayers with the $2 billion dollar tab.”

Not even close.

Given that I am the policy director of the nonprofit, Step Up For Students, that supports this expansion (and co-hosts this blog), readers are entitled to take anything I say with some measure of skepticism. But here is the simple truth: The bill increases the current cap by $30 million, which represents a growth of 8.3 percent in the first year and 3.5 percent in the fifth year. It would allow for an additional 5,745 students in the fall, a number that would actually shrink over the five years because the $30 million is constant. Continue Reading →

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For FL school choice scholarships, it’s which test, not whether to test

just the factsFlorida Senate President Don Gaetz says he wants low-income students on the Tax Credit Scholarship to take a different standardized test, but his message has gotten a bit garbled in translation.

Somehow, the word “different” keeps disappearing.

Gaetz is raising a perfectly legitimate issue – whether a proposed expansion of the 12-year-old scholarship program for economically disadvantaged students should include a requirement that the scholarship students take the same standardized test the state is getting ready to roll out for public students in 2015. That test will be tied to Florida’s version of the Common Core standards. Currently, scholarship students are taking nationally-normed standardized tests approved by the state.

Somehow, even some of the state’s best newspapers have gotten this distinction wrong.

One report called Gaetz’s idea “a dramatic swing in Florida’s experience with school choice, where critics have complained voucher programs were diluting public schools with no evidence they were improving the outcomes for poor children.” Another said that “Senate leaders are proposing for the first time that scholarship recipients take standardized tests.” An editorial asked of the academic achievement in the program: “How do we know”

This is important because the error feeds a narrative – there is “no evidence” the scholarships are helping children – that is wrong. (For the record, the scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) Continue Reading →

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More access & oversight proposed for FL tax credit scholarships

Jon East

Jon East

Three weeks after Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford promised a “massive increase” in school choice scholarships for underprivileged schoolchildren, his chamber has released a 40-page bill. By common political measurement, he has lived up to his word.

The bill takes broad aim at the Tax Credit Scholarship, which has tripled its enrollment in the past six years but is still struggling to keep pace with demand. This year, the scholarship is serving 59,674 K-12 students in 1,414 private schools, yet applications were shut off nearly two months early with 34,000 more students who had already started.

The main reason the enrollment is limited is because the scholarship is financed by corporate contributions that receive a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit, and those credits are capped by budget writers. That puts them on a different footing than scholarships for disabled students or charter schools or most any other choice option, none of which have statewide enrollment limits. So the bill takes a stab at accelerating an already ambitious rate of growth.

Under current law, the cap is set to increase from $286.2 million this year to $357.8 million next year, under a formula that allows it to grow by 25 percent following any year in which 90 percent of the cap is reached. The House bill would up that ante by roughly $32 million, taking the cap in 2014-15 to $390 million and allowing the program to serve an estimated 75,000 students. In turn, the cap in the following three years would also be increased beyond current law by roughly $30 million, which means it could grow to $475 million, $590 million and $730 million. By that fourth year, enrollment could have doubled, to nearly 120,000 students.

Regular readers of this blog will know it is produced by Step Up For Students, which helps administer the tax credit scholarship (three other nonprofits have also signed up to do that next year). So we can claim a thorough working knowledge of the scholarship and how the bill might affect it, even as we acknowledge our obvious potential for bias here.

The increase in the cap is but one of at least a half-dozen bill features that are worthy of note.  In no particular order, the bill would also:

•             Increase the scholarship amount. The current scholarship, $4,880, is the lowest-cost education option in the state and covers only about two-thirds of the average tuition and fees for participating schools. Every year, thousands of students are approved for scholarships but then turn them down because their families cannot afford to cover the gap. The scholarship is pegged to the unweighted average of the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), which is the technical description for how much operational money the state budgets for each public school student. The scholarship is on a path to reach 80 percent of the FEFP in 2015-16. The bill would take that one step further, to 84 percent, in 2016-17.

•             Partial scholarships for higher-income students. The scholarship is targeted at students whose household income qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunch, which is 185 percent of poverty or $44,122 for a household of four. These students can remain on the program, as long as their household income does not exceed 230 percent of poverty, with the scholarship amount being reduced in the process. But there is no way for a new student with income greater than 185 percent to get any scholarship help. The bill would change that by allowing partial scholarships for both new and existing students. The scholarship amount would be reduced in proportion to the size of the income. At the top, a student whose household income is 260 percent of poverty, or $62,010 for a household of four, would be eligible for a 50 percent scholarship. The bill mandates that students in the lowest-income category, 185 percent and below, receive first priority. It also would require that any new partial-scholarship student have attended a public school the prior year, except for those entering kindergarten and first grade.

•             A sixth tax source. The bill would add the sales tax to the other five tax sources for which companies can receive dollar-for-dollar state tax credits for contributions to scholarship organizations. The potential sales tax pot would be the biggest of the six, but adding it to the mix has no impact on the state budget because the tax credits are capped across the board. In other words, the size of tax-credit pie is the same, but this change would allow it to be sliced into six pieces, not five. The sales tax credits would pose no legal obstacles under the 2006 Bush v. Holmes decision outlawing Opportunity Scholarships, according to constitutional attorney Barry Richard, because they are not earmarked or appropriated specifically for public education. Continue Reading →

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