The biggest school choice myth that just won’t die

Ron Matus

School choice myths often persist no matter how much credible evidence is accumulated to dispel them. The myth that school choice programs drain money from public schools is particularly prone to being propped up by “alternative facts.”

Myths about school choice are like zombies. You can land a blow here and there, and sometimes knock one down for a spell. But they always come back, ugly as ever.

The most persistent and pernicious myth about school choice is that it drains/diverts/siphons funding from traditional public schools.

In Florida, where education spending is indeed low relative to other states, this myth is particularly easy to prop up – and most likely to frighten. Critics repeat it. Politicians amplify it. Watchdogs, with rare exception, shrug at it. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric is especially lively as the midterm election approaches (see here, here, here, here, here, here … )

Because most folks don’t know the math, the myth lives. But the truth is, crippling or killing charter schools and private school scholarships wouldn’t part the financial clouds for traditional public schools. It would unleash a tsunami.

Here’s why.

In Florida, taxpayers spent $10,308 per pupil in district schools in 2015-16, according to Florida Tax Watch. Its 2017 report offers the best, most current data for spending comparisons across education sectors.

By contrast, taxpayers spent $7,307 per pupil for charter schools, or 71 percent of district spending. Meanwhile, the value of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, funded by corporate contributions in return for tax credits, was $5,643, or 55 percent of district spending. (The scholarship is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)

Bringing charter and scholarship students up to the district per-pupil average would have cost taxpayers another $1.2 billion that year alone.

The value of the scholarship, and operational funding for charter schools, is, by law, pegged to a percentage of per-pupil funding for districts. If education spending in Florida isn’t adequate, it’s even less so for school choice students.

I bet only a tiny percentage of Floridians know that. And why would they?

Just-the-facts information about education spending is rarely, if ever, transmitted to residents – either by governments or the media. Bogus information, meanwhile, spreads like a virus. Specific myths like this one – repeated without question – are peddled by people who know better.

Last week, state Rep. Janet Cruz, running for the senate seat now held by Sen. Dana Young, accused Young of supporting budget cuts to education in 2011 (during the Great Recession) that Cruz said led to the current air conditioning woes in some district schools. “They cut $1.3 billion to public schools, yet didn’t cut the funding to charter corporate schools,” Cruz says in this video, which spurred this story.

For goodness’ sake.

Again, charter schools in Florida get 71 cents on the dollar for district schools. Again, operational funding for charters is pegged to district funding, so cuts would affect both. How refreshing it would have been to see the story note this.

Do school choice critics believe their own rhetoric? Again, if choice students returned to district schools, it’d be a financial nightmare. For the districts.

Consider construction costs alone.

This issue surfaced in 2014, after the teachers union filed a lawsuit to try and kill the tax credit scholarship. Had the union succeeded in ending the program, which was serving 98,457 students when the Florida Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiffs, the cost to build new public school spaces for just half those students would have surpassed $1.1 billion. (That’s based on state figures.)

The calculations for charters, which now serve 300,000 students, are more complicated, because they do get some construction funding. But they’ve historically received far, far less per-pupil than district schools.

HB 7069, which became law in 2017 and sought to narrow that gap, continues to be savaged by school choice critics. Earlier this year, Florida districts shared $91.2 million with charters to comply. That’s about 3 percent of capital funding statewide. In the Hillsborough district, site of the senate battle noted above, charters got 2 percent.

That’s it. Keep that in mind the next time you hear the outrage. Also keep in mind that lawmakers changed the law last spring so districts have to share even less going forward.

As far as I know, there’s never been a fiscal impact analysis of charter school spending in Florida. I’d love to see one. But assuming it put charters in a favorable light, I’m not sure it would do much good.

To date, there have been eight fiscal impact analyses of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Every single one shows the program saves taxpayer money that can be re-invested in public schools. Yet critics keep repeating the draining myth – and keep getting away with it.

That’s the real horror.

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Lynne September 2, 2018 - 10:07 am

Do the charter schools offer bus rides to school? Do they require the parents to work at the school? Do they offer free breakfast or lunch? Wow, these schools don’t offer everything the public school do. So who can attend the charter school? Only the middle class or upper class families.

Ron Matus September 2, 2018 - 6:12 pm

Hi Lynne. It’s true transportation requirements for charter schools are different than for district schools, but there are some district schools that don’t provide bus service. My sons attended such a district school. I’ve never heard of any charters that required parents to work at the school, but I have heard of district schools that had requirements for parental engagement. My sons attended such a district school. As far as I know, charters participate in free- and reduced-priced meal programs just like district schools. The latest data from the Florida Department of Education shows 62 percent of charter school students in Florida were black or Hispanic, and 51 percent were eligible for free and reduced price lunch. Clearly, many low-income parents and parents of color really, really like charter schools.

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