Author Archive | Jon East

FSBA leader twists truth on tax credit scholarships



If truth is the first casualty of war, then Florida School Boards Association executive director Wayne Blanton may have been suiting up back in June. His Capital Dateline interview then with Steve Wilkerson described tax credit scholarships for low-income students as a financial drain not only on public schools but on all state government services.

Blanton, a seasoned educator, knows better. So let’s assume the association’s planned lawsuit against the scholarship, to be announced today, was his motivation.

Blanton’s financial assertion is short enough to quote in full:

“We are not a big fan of those type of scholarships. There’re a couple of reasons. No. 1, it’s taking a substantial amount of money every year away from public schools. But the bigger issue, I think, is over the next two years those corporate scholarships are going to siphon off about 2 to 2 ½ billion dollars from the state. Now making my assumption earlier that we get 36 percent of that, for every $1 billion that would be $360 million that public schools do not get. But then there’s over $600 million that doesn’t come into the state at all. It doesn’t come in for child care, it doesn’t come in for health services, it doesn’t come in for the Division of Family Services and things of that nature, it doesn’t come in for corrections. Those dollars not coming into the state are not just detrimental to public schools, it’s detrimental to a lot of other services the state is trying to deliver and has a hard time getting those dollars to them now. So I think we’ve got to take a real close look at that in the big picture – not just education but how those dollars are disappearing from a lot of other entities.”

Readers should be aware that I’m the policy director for Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that co-hosts this blog and helps administer the scholarship that Blanton calls into question. But his misstatements are at such odds with the fiscal reality that they are rebutted by basic state revenue reports and fiscal evaluations.

Let’s begin with the “siphon.” Under state law, the amount of tax credits that can be used toward contributions for the scholarship is capped every year. The Department of Revenue is responsible for overseeing the cap, and here is the link to its latest calculation. The maximum possible amount for scholarships in the next two years is in fact $805.1 million – not $2.5 billion. That’s one-third the amount that Blanton claimed.

Now let’s look at how the loss of those dollars is “detrimental” to all those public services, including schools. Continue Reading →


Union lawsuit: It’s about winning, not how the game is played

Give Joanne McCall credit for acknowledging that the Florida Education Association opposes private learning options for both low-income and special needs students, but let’s not pretend the union’s lawsuit against these scholarships is driven by its devotion to parliamentary procedure.

“We’re all taught to play by the rules,’’ wrote McCall, FEA vice president, in Tuesday’s Tampa Tribune. “In a civil society, we rely on rules and procedures and laws as we go about our daily routine. When people break the rules, they’re expected to be held accountable for their actions — whether it’s within your family, on the job or at school, or in our society as a whole.”

This is a bit much. The FEA is certainly entitled to ask the court to determine whether this new law violated the single-subject requirement in the state constitution, but that is also the only play it has left. Few organizations work the Legislature with more sophistication and heavier artillery than the FEA. It has spent more than $20 million in the state political arena in the past dozen years, and a House Democrat said FEA threatened her with a primary opponent if she voted for the scholarship bill this year. That House member, Daphne Campbell, representing a mostly Haitian-American district in North Miami, indeed voted for the scholarship. And she indeed has a primary opponent – funded by the union.

The FEA is hardly alone in this modus operandi, and big campaign money is certainly being spent by all sides in the education arena. The point is simply that the major protagonists play to win, and you don’t have to look back too far to see that FEA is not quite so devoted to “civil society” when it’s on the winning end.

Just last year, FEA was caught by surprise when the appropriations bill (Page 22) offered a $480 million pay raise for teachers that could not go into effect for a full year. With the Legislature in its final days, FEA launched into overdrive, working with the governor’s office to slip a provision into a 45-page conforming bill just 48 hours before the session ended. The provision undid language in the appropriations bill, allowing teachers to get their pay raises sooner.

It’s worth noting that the conforming bill, SB 1514, had so many different subjects that its title alone ran for four full pages and began with the phrase “An act relating to education.” If that sounds familiar, it is because the FEA is decrying precisely those same features in the bill, SB 850, it is asking a court to nullify this year.

It’s common for conforming bills to include a wide range of provisions related to the budget. And the FEA also cites procedural setbacks to argue the tax-credit and personal learning account provisions had “failed.” The point is that process leading to the passage of big-ticket legislation is almost always messy, but doesn’t always wind up in court.

FEA attorney Ron Meyer has tried to deflect questions about how the lawsuit might put the new special needs scholarship out of business by calling it “collateral casualty.” It is certainly true that FEA focused more of its attention to defeating the tax credit scholarship provisions, but McCall was more candid in her Tribune commentary, acknowledging “serious concerns” about the new Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA).

During the session, the FEA was less measured about those concerns. It whipped up its members with legislative newsletters that tied the PLSA to ALEC, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, and used phrases like “another scheme to commercialize education” and “the camel’s nose under the tent” and “this program will blow the doors off public education.” In her own legislative testimony, McCall called the program “a giant step backward for all students” and, in her letter urging a veto, she dismissively labeled the PLSA as “an entitlement for students with disabilities.”

The FEA is well within its rights to challenge the manner by which SB 850 was adopted, but let’s not wax too poetic about its desire to clean up the legislative process. It threw all its considerable resources into stopping the tax credit scholarship and PLSA provisions, two of the highest profile education issues in the 2014 session, and it came up agonizingly short on the final day. So it is turning to the courts instead. That’s the way the system works, but don’t mistake it for civic duty.


Jeb Bush, parental choice & Florida’s extraordinary transformation

School choice doors have been opened in Florida. And parents and children are charging through.

School choice doors have been opened in Florida. And parents and children are charging through.

The private school voucher Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law 15 years ago as part of his sweeping education reform was so quickly challenged and invalidated by the courts that its enduring significance is sometimes missed. Indeed, the Florida Opportunity Scholarship did not survive. But its children have grown like weeds.

The numbers are eye-popping: When the Florida Supreme Court tossed out the state’s first private voucher in 2006, it was serving 733 students. This past school year, three other scholarship programs adopted while Bush was governor reached more than 222,000 students. Throw in charter schools and that number exceeds 451,000.

In other words, one of every seven PreK-12 public education students last year attended a privately operated school.

As the governor’s Foundation for Excellence in Education takes a look back at the effect of the A+ Plan this month, it is rightfully focusing on the impact on traditional public schools. The plan’s laser focus, after all, is on academic standards and the learning gains of every student. It is driven by school grades based on student performance, and the resulting academic data created a momentum of its own.

As an editorialist for what is now called the Tampa Bay Times, I was among the progressives who chafed at the sweeping nature of the change and the abrupt partisan politics that made it possible. And yet the data was a punch in the gut. The Times had for decades been a faithful defender of a desegregation plan that put black and white children together on the same campuses, even as the burden fell disproportionately on black families. And yet A+ provided a disturbing reality check. It revealed that the gap in academic performance between black and white children in Pinellas remained shockingly wide. The A+ plan, among its other legacies, has forced all of Florida education to take that gap seriously.

In the 1999 Legislature, though, the biggest political scrap was over the voucher. Opportunity scholarships were tied to the new school grades under the law, and were available to any student who attended a district school that had two failing grades in four years. A lawsuit challenging the voucher was filed on June 22, 1999, the day after Gov. Bush signed the education reform into law.

As it turns out, that was only the beginning of Florida’s extraordinary transformation in parental empowerment. Continue Reading →


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 →


Parents shouldn’t be fighting each other over school choice



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 →


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 →


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.


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.