The Fact Checker Valerie Strauss might have used on school choice

pinocchio_4Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss is not known for an open mind on school choice, but she would have been wise to do a little homework before reprinting a 1,300-word oped from an anti-voucher activist in Florida. Had this column been submitted to The Fact Checker at the Post, 4 Pinocchios might not have done it justice.

The op-ed is written by a Palm Beach parent activist, Rita Solnet, who sincerely believes every parent wants his or her child to attend the school down the street. But her attack on a proposed expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship suffers not only from a lack of sensitivity to the plight of desperately poor parents, mostly of color, who have their children on waiting lists. Unfortunately, it also shows a remarkable indifference to basic facts.

Let’s walk through some of the highlights:

The courts ruled Jeb’s first voucher program unconstitutional. Not to be outdone by the courts, Jeb created another ‘corporate voucher’ program that sidestepped the court’s concern over separation of church and state by using a middleman agency.”

This is a two-fer. The Florida Supreme Court did in fact rule against Opportunity Scholarships, but not on the no-aid-to-religion clause. Instead it found the first voucher program to violate the uniformity clause in the state’s public education article. More striking, the claim that former Gov. Bush rushed to enact a tax credit scholarship after the decision as a legal subterfuge is more than a little time-challenged. The court issued its decision in 2006. The scholarship program was created in 2001.

This year, a massive voucher expansion bill was filed seeking a limit of close to the “B” word – nearly a billion dollars.”

That bill was actually passed back in 2010.That legislation created an automatic escalator allowing the program to grow up to 25 percent per year, so long as corporations are willing to donate, and so long as parents desire scholarships for their children. The current bill allows the program to grow slightly faster in order to reduce the current 34,000 waiting list quicker, but ultimately, provides only $44 million extra.

Florida already pays some $300 million to voucher schools with an automatic escalator built in to increase the cap. Florida voters rejected this concept in 2012.”

Voters actually rejected something quite different in 2012. They rejected Amendment 8, which would have removed the state’s no-aid-to-religion clause. As even the Florida School Boards Assocation, an opponent of the amendment, noted at the time, passage or rejection of the amendment would have no direct impact on the tax credit scholarship program.

Any way you look at it, private entities receive public tax dollars with no accountability.”

One can certainly debate whether there is sufficient accountability, but there is certainly more than none. All scholarship students take state-approved nationally norm referenced tests such as the Stanford 10 or Terra Nova. The gain scores are reported publicly, both at the state level and for every school with 30 or more tested scholarship students. Additionally, schools with $250,000 or more in scholarship funds must submit independent financial reports to the state.

There is “zero evidence required of return-on-investment by voucher schools.”

There is actually six years’ worth of state-mandated reports on this subject. These reports – completed by Northwestern University economist David Figlio – continue to show that students entering the program are among the lowest performers in their prior public school, but once on the program, the students experience learning gains on par with all students nationally. That is particularly encouraging news considering 70 percent of the scholarship students are black or Hispanic, and the average household income is just 9 percent above poverty.

All of this information is made public on the Florida Department of Education website.

By diverting money away from public schools into private hands, it weakens our neighborhood public schools.”

There is actually no evidence for this. The scholarship, worth $4,880 this year, amounts to less than 60 percent of the cost of per-pupil spending in public schools. According to yet another state government report, each $1 lost in tax credits saves the state $1.49 in education expenditures. Five different independent agencies have now issued seven different reports that all arrive at the same financial conclusion: the scholarship saves money that can be used to enhance neighborhood schools.

Ms. Solnet concludes her commentary with a theme that is familiar to Florida readers. “Vouchers,” she writes, “actually strip away parents’ ultimate choice.” These parents, we are assured, “don’t want to be forced to shop around” and they “don’t have the time nor do they want to become experts.”

Don’t be unduly alarmed by the tortured logic. It is simply her way of expressing her view that neighborhood schools are the only way education should be ever be delivered, regardless of the century in which one might live.

Since Ms. Solnet is president of a group that calls itself “Parents Across Florida,” let’s end by testing her claims about parents against one final set of facts.

Do parents not want to “shop around”? In Florida last year, the parents of nearly 1.5 million school children chose a school other than their assigned neighborhood school. That’s 42 percent of the children in preK-12 in this state.

Do vouchers “strip away parents’ ultimate choice”? This year, the parents of nearly 60,000 of the poorest students in Florida applied for and received a scholarship. Roughly 30,000 more were left on a waiting list.

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13 Responses to The Fact Checker Valerie Strauss might have used on school choice

  1. WT March 20, 2014 at 11:38 am #

    Wow, Rita Solnet is an idiot.

    • Patrick R. Gibbons
      Patrick R. Gibbons March 20, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

      As much as we disagree with her, we prefer not to call people names. Let’s all be civil please!

  2. Rita Solnet March 20, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    The audience for your blog, written by the sole agency sponsoring the tax credit scholarship, tend to resort to name calling simply because this blog leads them down that path unfortunately. Therefore, don’t blame your audience.

    As for jumping to the conclusion that I am “anti choice,” and erroneously labeling me that –you are wrong! Not once did I write that nor allude to that in my piece. You clearly don’t know me at all. Ergo, please FACT CHECK yourselves!

    I’ve donated a great deal of my income to several K-12 religious schools in Florida and CT – I supported them for many years. Be careful not to offend the true supporters of these institutions by piling on insults.

    First of all, I believe in FL vouchers for children with special needs– that’s what this program initially promised to be capped at $47 million. That’s critical and always will be.

    Next, I am the product of a great education in CT at a religious school.My parents both worked (rare in the 50’s & 60’s). They scrimped & saved to put their children in Catholic school. It was their choice and they sacrificed much to do so.

    Next, I believe in laws and believe in following the constitution until it is amended.I believe in democracy and the fact that voters shall prevail. Voters in 2012 were asked again about the concept of separation of church and state. Some 56%-57% said no. This violates the constitution. Period.

    Bith NC & LA courts recently blocked funding from being diverted to religious schools from public schools due to their constitutions. Look it up- fact!

    So I believe in choice for special needs, I don’t believe in programs that violate the constitution for religious schools.

    I don’t believe in piggishly growing a program with no substantive evidence it return on investment whatsoever. Listening to similar testimony from people with the same yellow tee shirts on, it appears to be for the sake of avoiding public school standardized tests! How ironic!

    All children must have a high quality public education. All our tax dollars must have oversight and this clearly does not — when I hear a woman stand up to say the voucher school her child attends has no accreditation and now they’re scrambling to help him- that’s disgraceful. Who is responsible for that oversight? Shouldn’t you spend your time fixing those problems vs name calling, word-smithing op eds, and taking pot shots at a tax payer who pays your salary while you demean me.

    My last paragraph stresses that I do want parents to have choices– richly-funded,high quality, full-service offerings that best meet their child’s needs. When you propose piggish, unaccountable bill such as this, you strip away the ultimate choice all parents want and deserve!

    Bottom line is this– I call it as I see it. I’m not paid by anyone. I won’t personally win or lose if this bill goes forward or is defeated. You will. You all have a great deal to lose as it personally impacts your agency, your salaries, etc. I get that. And from your troubling video where you admit to buying off FL senators and Reps with $1M in campaign donations, I find that disgraceful too. Imagine how many religious schools could benefit by that $1m plus.

    I believed that you all believed in what you were doing until I saw that telling video.
    Now, I’m not so sure. I afforded you respect in my op ed and in my testimony ut the say your staff behaved on twitter and here has me questioning your motives.

    • Patrick R. Gibbons
      Patrick R. Gibbons March 20, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

      Hi Rita, I’ve been nothing but respectful. I’m addressing your errors, not calling you names, or pretending to know your intentions. In these comments you’ve made a few more errors. Please remember, you can’t say there is zero evidence the program helps students when the state has 6 years’ worth of reports on the DOE website that says otherwise.

      Next, you are misstating campaign finance law and facts. There is no tax money, let alone tax credits, going to any 527 or 501(c)4 from the Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

      Regarding the case law, the constitutional issues in NC and LA were both over funding sources, not religion. The funding issue was fixed in LA and being worked on in NC.

      Finally, if you believe that people can’t spend money to support the causes they believe in you might want to ask the FEA to not spend the $10 million they spent over the last 4 years lobbying to do all sorts of things they believe in.

  3. Rita Solnet March 20, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    In Re: Your comment:

    “The scholarship, worth $4,880 this year, amounts to less than 60 percent of the cost of per-pupil spending in public schools.”

    Please do tell the audience that if this bill passes, that amount rises over the next 4 years to approximately $5705. Correct?

    In Re: Your comment on 30,000 on the Wait List

    It is odd that that number consistently changes no matter who you speak to in Step Up for Students, in the FL DOE, or even among the legislative sponsors of this bill. Why is that? Since this Voucher Expansion bill was precipitated by this allegedly large waiting list, one would think that number would be consistent.

    2) Where are the last audits of the money spent on the religious institutions?

    3) In Re: Your Snark About the Century I live in
    Mr. Gibbons, I live in this century. One that is held accountable to taxpayers for the dollars they spend. I live in a world that requires fiscal discipline. I live in a world that strengthens and improves on the investments they made vs. spins off another revenue stream that benefits others and is not cost effective whatsoever. – talking about economies of scale.

    You clearly turned your nose up on, and your back on public schools philosophically and financially. You continue to seek ways to siphon money out of them making them weaker and weaker as public offerings. Will that be your legacy? The organization that dismantled public schools in Florida?

    Don’t you care about all the money invested in the buildings, the facilities, the surrounding areas or the jobs? You want to privatize public education and you will ultimately abandon the very children you claim to be helping because your voucher schools do not have to accept all students. The more you weaken and close public schools, the more children with real needs will be abandoned. But then, you already know that, Mr. Gibbons, don’t you. That’s the grand plan, I suppose.

    Don’t utter the words “this is about the kids,” ever again because sadly, your actions, your disrespectful blog remarks reveal that is not the case.

    – See more at:

    • Garrett Teal March 24, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      Ms. Solnet,

      You asked:

      “Where are the last audits of the money spent on the religious institutions?”

      This is the problem. Money is no being spent ON private schools, but rather THROUGH them. It’s a matter of outsourcing education in order to provide a higher quality experience for those students who aren’t being adequately taught by the public system.

      But let’s be clear. Vouchers do not fund private schools. Vouchers do not fund religious ideologies. Vouchers do not fund curriculum. Vouchers fund students. That is the end game here.

      Moreover, where are these “public dollars” coming from to begin with? Tax payers. Parents. Many of these people would prefer to be sending their children to religious schools or other non-public schools, but they’re forced to fund a public system (and not exactly an excellent system either). Parental choice is a right.

      More oversight for private schools is ABSOLUTELY a good idea. If any vouchers are accepted by a school, public academic standards should apply. Shame on anyone who doesn’t want accountability. But should we throw out voucher programs because of this lack of oversight? Or should we work on fixing the problem instead of derailing all of this progress? This would be a better focus for all your anger.

      As someone who actually did come up through the FL education system, I can speak from experience when I say that the public schools don’t work for everyone. I’m fortunate in my own right, but I saw a lot of students who would have been far better off in a private school setting, if only their parents could afford it.

      Private schools and voucher expansion don’t harm the public system like you assert. School choice raises the bar for everyone. That’s what this is about. Not politics. Not money. It’s about the students. Please don’t forget that.

  4. Tradtional Public School Teacher March 20, 2014 at 6:04 pm #

    Voucher bill pulled from the Senate. Nice job, Rita. Kudos to you and those who support our public schools

  5. WT March 20, 2014 at 11:46 pm #

    Sorry for the name-calling, but it’s hard not to when Rita Solnet says things like this:

    “I don’t believe in piggishly growing a program with no substantive evidence it return [sic] on investment whatsoever.”

    This program has been in place since 2001. The most rigorous evaluations have shown that it improves kids’ learning.

    Then Rita Solnet, not content with having shown herself completely ignorant of the scholarly evidence, adds this:

    “You continue to seek ways to siphon money out of them making them weaker and weaker as public offerings.”

    Wrong again! The ONLY evidence shows that this program actually leads to the improvement of public schools.

    Someone who so consistently makes claims about evidence that are the exact opposite of the truth, well, what would you call them?

  6. Julie Delegal March 21, 2014 at 10:22 am #

    Please see my comments (now awaiting moderation) on this column at its other venue:


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