Florida’s legislative leaders are eager to amp up the state’s school-voucher program, which gives tax credits to businesses that fund disadvantaged children’s scholarships to private schools. Greased with political support and PAC money, a proposal to increase the $286 million program by $120 million over four years is wending its way through committees with few signs of a hitch, which is bad news for public-school supporters.
Florida’s school vouchers, called the Tax Credit Scholarship program pays for about 60,000 students to attend private schools, of which more than 80 percent are religious. However, this is money that, in effect, has been denied to the public-school system and the state’s general revenue.
Florida’s school-voucher program has a Catch-22 aspect: Vouchers were created to allow parents unhappy with their local public schools’ performance to enroll their children in private institutions using money contributed by corporations, which then get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit; in turn, this means fewer state tax dollars collected that could have been spent to improve ailing public schools, giving parents ever more reasons to keep seeking vouchers.
Almost 10 years ago, the Editorial Board saw the increased competition as a good thing, admonishing public schools to improve the quality of education they provided. And, to a large extent, that is what happened, as school grades in many districts attest. As a result, parents should be less inclined to pull their kids out of public schools — and the state should be less inclined to give away to private schools even more millions of dollars that could benefit state revenue.
But, given the money and clout behind the proposed increase, scantly funded opponents face an uphill battle. Supporters include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and think tanks — James Madison Institute and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future — among others. These groups and others have thrown a lot of persuasive power and money into election campaigns to get their point across. The Florida Federation for Children, a political action committee, has raised more than $2.3 million since 2010 and has invested most of it in ads and direct mailings to support candidates who favor vouchers.
And big money talks loud in Tallahassee. A House committee last week voted along party lines to approve an expansion plan that would also include removing some eligibility restrictions for students seeking vouchers and offering partial scholarships to families earning more than $60,000 a year. So much for the “disadvantaged” qualification.
Other proposals in similar bills would allow businesses that contribute to earn credits on their sales taxes, opening up a new revenue stream for the program, and to require students in schools receiving vouchers to take the same standardized tests as students in public schools. This is the one proposal that makes good sense.
Vouchers have their merits, according to the parents whose students use them. Supporters also say that vouchers save the state money because the cost per capita is less in the private schools in the program. But vouchers only account for some 60,000 students in the state, whereas the public schools serve millions of children. Though some funding cuts during Gov. Scott’s first year in office have been restored, public schools are still underfunded. Goosing the voucher program may please the few, but it undercuts the many at the same time.