Author Archive | Jon East

Does school choice harm public schools? Claims fall apart under scrutiny

One of the most emotionally potent arguments against educational choice – that it cripples public schools financially – is slowly unraveling in a Florida court of law. Teacher union attorneys, who seek to abolish tax credit scholarships for 78,000 low-income children, are stumbling to make the case.

This is no small matter. The claim that scholarships and vouchers and charter schools financially undercut public education has been repeated so often for so long that it tends to get treated as though it were fact. The money is commonly described as being “diverted” or “siphoned” from public schools, pitting choice schools against neighborhood schools and creating understandable anguish for parents who want only for their children to have the best education possible.

The Florida case, McCall v. Scott, is shining an unforgiving light on that assertion. The backdrop is the issue of standing – the typically arcane calculation of whether someone is connected to and harmed by a legal matter the court can resolve. Because the union is challenging a scholarship that involves no direct appropriation of tax dollars, the attorneys are being asked to prove their clients suffer “special injury.”

They are quite conspicuously failing.

In the original complaint, filed Aug. 28, 2014, the Florida Education Association (FEA) attorneys said their clients “have been and will continue to be injured by the scholarship program’s diversion of resources from the public schools.” They bolstered the case with two arguments: 1) The tax-credited contributions that are made to private nonprofits to pay for scholarships reduce state taxes that would otherwise fund public schools; and 2) School districts lose funding for each student who leaves a public school to attend a scholarship school.

During the arguments in trial court, Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds was openly skeptical. “You could do away with this program tomorrow morning,” he said at one point, “and the budget for the school system might change not one iota.” He then dismissed the case on May 18, 2015, ruling: “Whether any diminution of public school resources resulting from the Tax Credit Program will actually take place is speculative, as is any claim that any such diminution would result in reduced per-pupil spending or in any adverse impact on the quality of education.” Continue Reading →

0

School choice still rising in Florida: 1.5 million students choose

School choice options in Florida grew last year at more than twice the rate of total enrollment, surpassing 1.5 million students. That means 43 percent of preK-12 students in the nation’s third-most populous state picked their own form of education.

This trend also shows little signs of slowing. Enrollment in charter schools grew by more than 9 percent, and a scholarship program for low-income children continued to grow at double-digit rates. In the past two years alone, 88,527 Florida students have joined the choice movement.

The numbers come from 2014-15 data compiled by the state Department of Education, and speak to a broader transformation that transcends the traditional debate about public-vs-private. Indeed, two of the three most chosen learning options in Florida are provided by school districts themselves – through open-enrollment plans that let parents choose from clusters of schools, and through choice and magnet schools that cater specifically to children’s academic interests and aptitudes. Continue Reading →

Why students benefit when scholarship organizations serve all schools

The resistance to a proposed requirement that state-approved nonprofits provide scholarships to students attending any eligible private school has taken on an unusual fervor in Georgia. Some highly respected national education reformers recently described it as both a “threat to a growing and successful type of educational choice” and “contrary to our nation’s founding ideals.” One even called it “the nuclear option.”

In Florida, we welcome it as part of the law.

Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship, now in its 14th year, stipulates that scholarship organizations “must allow an eligible student to attend any eligible private school and must allow a parent to transfer a scholarship during a school year to any other eligible private school of the parent’s choice.” The intent is obvious. It gives low-income parents an easier shopping experience among the 1,600 participating schools and a smoother path to the one that best meets their children’s needs. After all, one of the program’s core principles is to empower parents.

This is not to argue that the serve-all-schools approach is the only possibility, but the Florida experience certainly belies the apocalyptic claims of opponents in Georgia. The scholarship this year serves 78,154 students with tax-credited contributions totaling $447.3 million. As such, it’s nearly 10 times the size of the Georgia scholarship and is often viewed as a national model. No nuclear fallout so far. Continue Reading →

BAEO enters legal fray to defend Florida tax credit scholarships

A national organization that fights for the academic needs of black students entered the lawsuit over Florida’s tax credit scholarship today. The group, Black Alliance for Educational Options, filed an amicus brief urging the First District Court of Appeal to reject the state teacher union’s attempt to shut down the scholarship and to affirm a circuit judge’s dismissal of the case.

The brief tracks some of the legal arguments offered by lawyers representing the state and scholarship parents, but its tone is more personal. “BAEO knows from recent history that without high quality educational options such as the FTC scholarships, many of these students would never be in a position to enjoy their full panoply of civil rights – those rights can ring hollow for illiterate black students,” wrote Michael Ufferman, the attorney for BAEO.

The tax credit scholarship, passed into law in 2001, is serving 78,014 low-income schoolchildren this year. Of those, 23,268 are black. Their average household income is $23,551, which is 0.6 percent above poverty. Roughly 54 percent live with only one parent.

The Florida Education Association and other groups filed suit in August 2014, asking the courts to declare the scholarship unconstitutional. Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds dismissed the case on standing in May, ruling the plaintiffs could not show how they or public schools were harmed. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 similarly rejected a challenge to a tax credit scholarship law in Arizona, denying standing, and three other state supreme courts have ruled in favor of the scholarships. None to date has ruled against them.

“If this lawsuit succeeds, the results will be devastating to the nearly 80,000 low-income and working-class, mostly black and Hispanic students who will be kicked out of their schools,” BAEO Policy and Research Director Tiffany Forrester said in a news release. “But it will also be a blow to social justice. Wealthy families have always had choices in education; low-income and working-class families deserve the same.”

BAEO also said in the release it was “very disappointed” the Florida NAACP joined in filing the suit. Two other plaintiffs, the Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Association of School Administrators, have withdrawn since the case was dismissed in circuit court. Meanwhile, a growing number of leading black ministers across the state have joined the cause against the lawsuit, calling themselves the “Florida African-American Ministers Alliance For Parental Choice.”

Earlier this month, attorneys for the state and scholarship families filed response briefs in the First District Court of Appeal. They asked to court to schedule oral arguments for the appeal.

The distorted history of Florida tax credit scholarships

In a new appellate brief asking the courts to throw out a 14-year-old scholarship serving 78,000 of the state’s most economically disadvantaged students, lawyers for Florida’s teachers union have doubled down on a conspiracy theory. These attempts to sow seeds of doubt about the political origins of the Tax Credit Scholarship strike the unusual combination of being both irrelevant and wrong.

The brief, filed 10 days ago in the First District Court of Appeal following a circuit judge’s decision in May to dismiss the case on standing, opens with a bold assertion: “The challenged program is the successor program to the Opportunity Scholarship Program previously invalidated by both this Court and the Florida Supreme Court.”

The claim is similar to those made publicly over the past year by Florida Education Association attorney Ron Meyer, and unfortunately has seeped its way into the broader media narrative around the program. Even in recent presidential campaign stories about former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education record, outlets from The 74 to the New York Post have reported versions of the claim as fact. The Post wrote, without attribution, that: “When a state court nixed the program in 2006, Bush created a new voucher system, funded by private businesses, that withstood a court challenge from teachers.” A column in the Florida Times-Union last week also chimed in: “It became a government program, diverting tax dollars in the form of ‘tax credits’ into a tuition-granting organization only after the voucher portion of Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ program was stricken by the courts.” Continue Reading →

Solution to ‘failure factories’ must be tailored to students’ needs

That the word “factories” is alliterative with “failure” probably explains why the Tampa Bay Times tied them together for a front-page Sunday education story that is drawing state and national attention. But it may unwittingly express part of what is going dramatically wrong with five public elementary schools in a predominantly black neighborhood in St. Petersburg, Fla.

No one disputes the path by which enrollment in these schools has shifted from an economically and racially diverse student body to one that is almost entirely poor and black. But the resegregation is only part of the tragedy here.

Those of us who fought the Pinellas County School Board’s decision to retreat from court-ordered desegregation now know that the racial quotas we supported were often masking a racial achievement gap within schools themselves. Indeed, the Times, with the benefit of state-required test data disaggregated by race, has previously reported that Pinellas black students score lower than black students in any of the state’s other big urban school districts – and that poverty alone isn’t to blame.

In other words, the struggles of these students in St. Petersburg did not begin with resegregation, though gathering all these students into five schools helped reveal a longstanding problem, and likely exacerbated it.

Having spent much of my professional career editorializing on Pinellas public schools and a good stretch of my adulthood volunteering in them to support my two daughters’ education, I hesitate to point fingers. After all, teaching children who are burdened by poverty at home is one of the greatest challenges public education faces. But the term “factory” may indeed hint at how these schools went off the rails.

Operationally speaking, Pinellas was running these schools in roughly the same manner as any of the district’s 68 traditional elementaries – in effect running Melrose Elementary like Bauder. At Melrose, more than 80 percent of the students are on free or reduced-price lunch and more than 90 percent are minorities. At Bauder, less than 30 percent qualify for the lunch program reduced lunch and 14 percent are minorities. Students at a school like Melrose may need emotional support, or additional time for reading instruction. Above all, though, they need to be surrounded by adults who can relate to them and recognize their potential. They need institutions that are tailored to their needs. Continue Reading →

New York passes budget this morning without statewide tax credit scholarships

A bipartisan plan to bring tax-credit scholarships to one of the nation’s largest and bluest states has fallen short, at least for now.The provision did not survive the $142 billion annual spending budget that New York lawmakers adopted early this morning, leaving supporters instead to push for its adoption this summer in the regular session.

The “Education Investment Tax Credit” had been tied to the Dream Act, which would provide state college aid to undocumented immigrants, in a political deal that unraveled in the final days of budget deliberations. Neither survived.

Among those expressing regret was Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, and his reaction was pointed: “Our elected officials must cease allowing public school teachers unions intent on creating a government school monopoly to continue dictating education policy in our state. We turn again to our leaders to do the right thing, and pass the education tax credit, not for any interest group, but for the children of our state.”

That the effort came so close, though, speaks to both its future possibilities and the changing politics surrounding private school choice.

In New York, supporters of the scholarship program have assembled a broad coalition led by prominent Democrats, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and supported by organized labor. Both Cuomo and the state Senate proposed the Education Investment Tax Credit in their budgets. Though the Assembly did not include the plan in its budget, a majority of its members have signed on as co-sponsors.

Continue Reading →

Alabama tax credit scholarships upheld in a case that sounds a lot like Florida’s

The Alabama Supreme Court on Monday rejected a constitutional challenge to a scholarship program that bears striking similarity to Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students, which was challenged in August. The Alabama ruling comes six months after the New Hampshire Supreme Court also rejected a challenge to tax credit scholarships in that state.

Not surprisingly, school choice advocates in Alabama were pleased. Said Chad Mathis, chairman of the Alabama Federation for Children: “We are thankful to the justices of the Alabama Supreme Court for seeing this lawsuit for exactly what it was – a veiled attempt by Alabama Education Association (AEA) to keep the status quo in education and prevent parents from making decisions that best suit their children.”

The AEA, Alabama’s teachers union, challenged both the procedure by which the Alabama law was passed in 2013 and the constitutionality of the program. The constitutional issues were based on the union’s argument that the scholarship funds were the equivalent of state appropriations – a claim that closely tracks the Florida case, which was filed by the Florida Education Association and other groups. Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

By alleging the scholarship funds were in fact government appropriations, the AEA said the program improperly used money from the Alabama Education Trust Fund on nonpublic schools and to support religious schools.

The union’s lawyers wrote that a tax-credited scholarship contribution “channels to charitable organizations monies that otherwise would have gone to the public (and) is the functional equivalent, in all respects, of an appropriation to such charitable institutions that are not under the absolute control of the State.”

Continue Reading →