Author Archive | Jon East

Why it is wrong and misleading to call FL’s tax credit scholarship a “voucher”

Teacher unions have sufficiently tarnished the word “voucher” in the public education arena that they insist on using it even when it is wrong. But the legal fight now underway in Florida over a “tax credit scholarship” should help clarify the difference.

Indeed, it could decide the case.

The distinction is straightforward. Merriam-Webster defines a voucher as “a coupon issued by government to a parent or guardian to be used to fund a child’s education in either a public or private school.” A tax credit scholarship, on the other hand, comes from tax-credited contributions made by private companies to a private nonprofit organization that in turn hands out the money. In short, one is a check from the government, the other from a private organization.

Not surprisingly, when the Florida Education Association and Florida School Boards Association announced their constitutional challenge to the Tax Credit Scholarship on Aug. 28, their press release used the word “voucher” 21 times. The formal complaint used it 45 times. But the FEA is using “voucher” not because it is correct but because it feeds a legal strategy. The FEA wants the courts to see the scholarship as no different than the government-issued voucher program the Florida Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2006. Though it acknowledged in its filing that the scholarship “relies on a different (funding) mechanism,” it wants the program to be treated the same nonetheless.

That may be a smart legal tactic, but it doesn’t change the meaning of “voucher.” It also doesn’t change the separate constitutional case law that has emerged around tax credit scholarships. Though some state supreme courts, including Florida’s, have ruled that school vouchers violate their constitutions, none has ruled against tax credit scholarships.

In fact, the same day the FEA filed its suit, the New Hampshire Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to that state’s Education Tax Credit Program. The court said the plaintiffs lacked standing because their claims of lost funding to public schools were merely “speculative” due in part to the fact that the money was not withdrawn from the treasury.

Though the New Hampshire ruling is timely, the Arizona courts provide a better comparison. That’s because the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that a government-issued voucher for special-needs students and foster children was unconstitutional. But the same Supreme Court also ruled in a previous case, called Kotterman v. Killian, in favor of a tax credit scholarship.

In its 2009 decision, the Arizona court explained why it reached different conclusions: “Because the funds in Kotterman were credits against tax liability, not withdrawals from the state treasury, the funds were never in the state’s treasury; therefore, the credits did not constitute an appropriation. Unlike the funds in Kotterman, the funds at issue here are withdrawn from the public treasury and earmarked for an identified purpose.”

Even more important, the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in. Continue Reading →

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FL’s school choice scholarship program is far cry from a ‘moneymaker’

FEA Vice President Joanne McCall

FEA Vice President Joanne McCall

Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall has an obvious motive to discredit the nonprofit that administers a scholarship program she is suing, but her recent claims about its spending practices are nonsensical. Since they also track a growing teacher union narrative suggesting misappropriation in the tax credit scholarship programfor low-income students, they’re worth addressing.

First, the new claim. Asked to respond to a full-page advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat from a diverse coalition of faith, community and education leaders that urged FEA to drop its lawsuit, McCall told SaintPetersblog: “About 3 percent of that scholarship money is being used to do this media campaign, and I’m not sure that taxpayers want their money used for that.”

The money for the scholarship, now in its 13th year and serving nearly 69,000 underprivileged students, is raised and distributed almost entirely by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that also co-hosts this blog. So the implication is that Step Up is robbing from scholarship students to support a newspaper advertisement or media campaign that, by her math, would cost $10.7 million this year.

Since my own paycheck is from Step Up, I, too, have an obvious motive to try to discredit. But SaintPetersblog editor Peter Schorsch beat me to it. The claim was so preposterous that he apparently gave McCall the opportunity to edit her own quote. She declined, sparking Schorsch to call her “reckless” and “desperate.”

Unfortunately, it’s also becoming par for the course.

To set the record straight, the advertisement was financed by a group called HCREO, or Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options. The ad was placed by a top-drawer communications consultant, Sachs Media Group, that is being paid by the Alliance for School Choice, a national education advocacy group that is fighting the lawsuit. In other words, neither the ad nor the Sachs contract is being financed by Step Up.

The 3 percent, though, is not a number McCall pulled from thin air. Under Florida law, state-approved scholarship organizations that operate for three full years with clean audits are then allowed to keep up to 3 percent of the tax-credited scholarship contributions in subsequent years to pay for administrative expenses. Given that the scholarship program this year is $357.8 million, that administrative allowance is now $10.7 million.

The FEA has likened that allowance to a management fee or even a profit. At its announcement of the lawsuit in August, FEA attorney Ron Meyer went so far as to call the program “a moneymaker for scholarship funding organizations.”

If Meyer’s assertion were true, Florida would have nonprofits lined up to get a piece of the action. Continue Reading →

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FL’s average school choice scholarship family makes $24,067 a year

The average household income of K-12 schoolchildren on Florida’s tax credit scholarship dropped by nearly $700 this year, placing it only 4.5 percent above poverty.

Income graphicThat’s the result of preliminary calculations from Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the scholarship and also cohosts this blog. As of Monday, the scholarship was serving 68,768 students in 1,510 private schools across the state — an increase of roughly 9,000 students from last year. The average household income was $24,067 and the average household size was 3.8.

Program officials are not sure what explains the drop. It may be tied generally to the economy, as the jobless rate still suffers and wages have stagnated for those at the lower end of the income scale. It could be that public school students who are at the lower end of the income threshold for free or reduced-price lunch are more inclined to seek the scholarship option. The threshold for the school lunch program, which is also the eligibility level for new scholarship students this year, is 185 percent of poverty or $44,122 for a household of four.

The average household income for the school choice scholarship students has fluctuated in recent years, and was as high as $26,504 in 2009-10. In the state’s annual reports on test score gains, the researcher has repeatedly taken note of the lower average income for scholarship students. As he wrote in this year’s report: “Scholarship participants tend to be considerably more disadvantaged and lower-performing upon entering the program than their non-participating counterparts (in public schools). These differences are very similar to those observed in years past and reported in prior program reports.”

Changes made to the tax credit scholarship law this year  extend the income eligibility for new students to 260 percent of poverty in 2016-17, but the law requires that lower income students be served first and provides only partial scholarships to any student whose household income is above the school lunch standard. At the top income level, which equates to $62,010 for a household, students would receive a half-scholarship.

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FSBA leader twists truth on tax credit scholarships

Blanton

Blanton

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 →

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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.

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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 →

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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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