More context for PolitiFact on school choice funding, accountability

In a new ruling, the Pulitzer-Prize winning PolitiFact concludes a Florida teachers union ad attacking a proposed school choice scholarship for bullied students is “Half True,” with its bottom line reflected in the headline, “Attack on House Speaker Richard Corcoran, HB 7055 need more context.” But neither union claim – that the proposal would “divert” more money from public schools, and to “unaccountable” private schools – is remotely true.

In this case, PolitiFact itself needs more context. And a few more facts.

First, the diversion myth.

When contacted by PolitiFact, the union attempted to tar the proposed new “Hope Scholarship” by pointing to the 17-year-old Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which this year serves 107,000 economically disadvantaged students (and is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog). That’s not a surprise. What is a surprise, though, is PolitiFact then ignoring the stack of evidence about the latter’s fiscal impact – evidence it cited just a few years ago when it ruled on a remarkably similar statement.

It’s a fact that eight separate analyses, from a wide range of independent groups and agencies, have all found the tax credit scholarship saves taxpayer money that can be reinvested in public schools. In a 2008 report, for example, the Florida Legislature’s research arm concluded taxpayers save $1.49 in general revenue for every $1 that corporations contribute in return for tax credits. In 2012, the Florida Revenue Estimating Conference projected the program would save $57.9 million the following year. Both entities have well-deserved reputations as straight shooters.

It’s also a fact that not a single study has found a negative fiscal impact. How can that be, given all the broken-record claims of diversions and drainings? Because even today, after a series of increases in individual scholarship amounts, the full value of the scholarship is still two-thirds of the average per-pupil expenditure in district-run schools.

Need more proof? The evidence for a positive fiscal impact is so overwhelming, it played a role in the dismissal of the highly publicized, union-led lawsuit, filed in 2014, to try and kill the scholarship program. Both the circuit court and appellate court in McCall v. Scott denied standing in part because the plaintiffs could not provide evidence the program was financially harming public schools. That’s a fact. It’s also a fact that in 2014, PolitiFact found a similar statement by then state Sen. Nan Rich — she said $3 billion would be diverted from public schools and spent on the scholarship program over five years – was “Mostly False.”

The 2014 ruling was based on the same fundamental points I’m making here. To quote the 2014 PolitiFact: “There’s no guarantee that money would otherwise have gone to public schools. And, private school vouchers tend to cost less than what it costs to educate a child in public schools, which complicates how much money taxpayers would pay if the children in private schools instead went to public schools.”

As for accountability …

Critics of educational choice programs hold to a narrow definition of accountability – a definition that sees accountability driven by regulations alone. That’s not how accountability works in many sectors of our lives, including public education. School accountability runs on a continuum between regulatory force and parental choice. Both force and choice can drive quality and effectiveness, and the work in progress – for all education sectors – is finding the right balance between the two.

PolitiFact doesn’t seem to have considered any definition other than the one offered by Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado professor who has devoted his career to criticizing choice programs in general and tax credit scholarships in particular. Welner is quoted extensively and allowed to assert that the Florida scholarship regulations are “weak and ineffective” without providing proof.

It’s true accountability with scholarship programs rests on a different point on the continuum than accountability with traditional district-run public schools. It’s true that by design, scholarship programs offer a fair bit of power and discretion to parents to exercise accountability. But the evidence suggests those parents are exercising that power and discretion wisely. I don’t know how a determination can be made about accountability, by PolitiFact or anybody else, without considering those outcomes.

So, for example: We know from a decade’s worth of standardized test results (testing is mandated as part of the state’s regulatory regimen for private schools participating in scholarship programs) that scholarship students are, on average 1) the lowest-performing students in district-run schools and 2) making solid progress in the private schools their parents chose for them. We also know, thanks to fresh research from the Urban Institute, that scholarship students enroll in college and earn degrees at higher rates than like students in district schools. That college-going rate is 15 percent higher for scholarship students overall, and 40 percent higher for those on scholarship four or more years.

By what standard, then, are Welner and PolitiFact judging accountability to be “weak and ineffective”?

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