Trump cites Florida as a model; school choice critics look elsewhere

Jon East

As President Trump looked with favor on Florida’s 15-year-old tax credit scholarship last week, some of the reviews seemed to suffer a form of interstate transference.

The formulation went something like this: If Arizona, then Florida.

Take Kevin Carey, the able director of education policy at New America, as one example. After Trump on Tuesday introduced a graduate student who attributed her academic turnaround to the Florida scholarship program, Carey responded in the New York Times with an extended discourse not on the Sunshine State but on the Arizona Tax Credit Scholarship. Carey is troubled that Arizona’s Senate president runs one of the largest scholarship-granting organizations, thinks 10 percent is too much to pay the organizations to administer the program, criticizes the state for allowing scholarship students with higher household incomes, and is worried about the lack of testing and financial accountability requirements.

Those are all reasonable concerns, but none of them apply to Florida.

The President followed up his introduction of University of South Florida master’s student Denisha Merriweather with a visit on Friday to an Orlando Catholic school that participates in a scholarship program his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has previously assessed as a national model. Not incidentally, Florida’s scholarship is also the largest in the nation.

So Carey’s challenge to Trump “to address issues that have arisen with state tax credits” would be more persuasive if he acknowledged that, at least at some level, Florida has addressed them.

For the record, the Florida program was created in 2001 and this year serves 98,457 students who are mostly black or Hispanic and whose average household income is only 4.4 percent above poverty. Among the distinguishing features of the law: full scholarships of $5,886 are available only to students whose household income is $49,200 for a family of four (which is 200 percent of poverty), with partial scholarships available to incomes of up to $63,960; scholarship students must take state-approved nationally norm-referenced tests, with results publicly reported each year statewide and for individual schools with at least 30 students with previous and current-year test scores; schools with at least $250,000 in scholarship funds each year must submit financial reports conducted by independent accountants; scholarship funding organizations must serve any eligible student to attend any eligible private school in the state; scholarship organizations undergo two full audits each year, one private and one by the state auditor general; scholarship organizations can keep no more than 3 percent of the tax-credited contributions and only after they have completed three years with clean audits.

Carey was hardly alone in downplaying Florida’s record. Laura Jimenez and Samantha Batel, education experts at the Center For American Progress, did more directly challenge the notion that Florida might be an exemplar. But their prime evidence was a pinched reading of the Florida’s tax credit scholarship annual test score report (which in fact concludes that scholarship students were among the lowest performers in the public schools they left behind and in 2014-15 achieved the same gains in reading and math as students of all incomes nationally), and, more curiously, test reports from voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio.

In the wake of Trump’s visit, outlets like National Public Radio and The American Prospect ran articles asserting tax credit scholarships can allow donors to turn a “profit.” They base their analyses an Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy report that found some individual taxpayers who pay the alternative minimum tax can reduce their federal tax obligation by giving a state-tax-credited contribution. But as the report itself pointed out, the issue is irrelevant in Florida, which allows only corporate contributions.

Both outlets also point to scenarios outlined by financial advisers in which donors to scholarship funding organizations could get beneficial tax treatment by, for example, donating stocks or other financial assets to scholarship organizations. Again, this raises a valid issue state policymakers should examine in state tax codes. But again, the issue is not relevant in Florida.

None of this is meant to claim that Florida has cornered the market on accountability for tax credit scholarships, and readers should certainly be aware that I work for the nonprofit, Step Up For Students, that helps administer the scholarship program here. The point on which everyone should agree is that we cannot accept self-dealing, fraud or second-rate academics for any learning option – public or private. But the reality is that the oversight and regulation of these scholarship programs, much like that of traditional schools themselves, remains a work in progress. As such, any potential federal tax credit scholarship program can learn from the state scholarships that have led the way, which is why it is important to accept that Trump visited Florida for a reason.

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Matthew Ladner
Matthew Ladner March 10, 2017 - 2:23 pm


Carey’s depiction of who is benefiting from the AZ tax credit programs is way off the mark:

Travis Pillow
Travis Pillow March 12, 2017 - 9:35 pm

Matt – I think you make an important point. It seems in Arizona, as in Florida, folks are learning lessons from scandals that emerged in the past, and producing stronger programs as a result. But critics continue to cite those past scandals to argue these programs shouldn’t exist.

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