Origins of Florida’s Tax Credit Vouchers–Or, Don’t Buy a Pig in a Poke

Diane Ravitch requested this article.  As I wrote it, I was struck by what a small, but politically well connected club was behind Florida’s choice movement.  They attracted big money to sell their ideas.  The end result, in spite of the growth of Florida’s tax credit vouchers, shows that: Not all Choices are Good Choices. 

Following Jeb Bush’s 1994 defeat in his run for governor, he dented his image.  According to a Tampa Bay Times report, in a televised debate Bush responded ‘not much’ when asked what he would do for black voters.  Faced with criticism, he launched a charter school in Miami, and the school choice movement in Florida began.

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Perspectives on Florida’s FTC Private School Tuition Programs

Public schools are the foundation of our democracy.  Yet, too often school choice divides rather than unifies communities. Parents want the best for their children, but when are choices good choices?  In this radio interview, Sue Legg and Charles Showalter discuss the issues surrounding the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.  You can listen to Tuesday’s broadcast here.

Sue Legg on Talk Radio about Vouchers

LWVUS announced a partnership with labor talk radio.  Now, the U.S. League has turned to Florida for a story about our tax credit scholarship program.  I did my homework, of course, for an interview on Tuesday, March 7th at 1:30 pm.  You can listen.  Go to their website and select the option best suited for you.  I use the Internet player .

The background for the story is historical and interesting.  Who would believe that President Ulysses S. Grant was a key player in the controversy over the separation of church and state in our schools.  Like any important education issue, the debate never ends.  It does morph as it has in Florida with the implementation of school choice policies.

Will Kentucky give up integration and go charter?

Kentucky:  United We Stand, Divided We Fall

Seven states have resisted the urge to go to charter schools.  Kentucky is one of them.  They kept bussing plans from the 1970s integration in place between the city of Louisville and its surrounding suburbs.  Yes, there was some complaining, but forty years later children are in classes with diverse socio economic and racial groups.  The latest opinion poll shows an 89% approval rating.  The Atlantic article contrasts Louisville with Detroit where charters abound.  Louisville comes out ahead, hands down.

Desegregation helped the city thrive.  Unlike Detroit, where affluent citizens fled to suburbs and bankrupted the inner city, all sorts of people and businesses flourish in Louisville.  Now their city cohesion is threatened with the introduction of three charter school bills in the state legislature.

Rep. Moffett’s bill 103 allow charters statewide but includes multiple authorizers.  This means that not just local school districts but mayors and universities or others could start a charter school.  Charter schools are essentially private schools that operate with public funds.  How is the public to know the effectiveness of charters?  If there are multiple authorizers, there will be different standards of oversight.  Some states have had charter school operators shop their ideas from one authorizer to another to find the one that will let them in.  The charter industry likes multiple chances to get started, but there are many reasons to keep the oversight and regulation of charters local and systematic.  Here is the take of one charter school proponent on why single authorizers work better.

Rep. John Carney, Chair of the House Education Committee, introduced his version of a charter bill 520 that allows only local school districts to authorize charters.  Disputes would be moderated by the State Board of Education in much the way that Florida operates.  The charters would take the same state accountability tests, follow the same health, safety, financial and transparency laws, and give priority to low income students attending low achieving schools. The staff analysis of this bill points out important concerns about sectarian and online schools, financial impact on public schools, provision for school closure as well as a major constitutional concern.

Targeting charters for low income students in struggling schools can be a trap.  Charters typically siphon off students in these areas who are more likely to succeed thus creating a downward spiral in those neighborhood schools.  It can make a bad situation worse.  The attrition rates of charters is typically high for both students and teachers.  The charter schools themselves fail at a high rate.  After all, the only ‘advantage’ of charters in those areas is that they can require teachers to work longer hours with less pay and no retirement benefits.  This is how the charters fund the extended time needed to improve student learning.  It’s all about money that is in short supply.

Bill 70 introduced by Senator Neal, would limit charters to a pilot project in Jefferson County.  The results of any pilot are clear.  They increase segregation both economically and racially, and they do not improve academic achievement.

If the educational goal is to close the achievement gap, then it will take something more disruptive than charter schools.  It will take a commitment to equity and that costs money.  Equity means that the needs of all children are addressed.

  • It likely will require more time time–a longer school day and school year.
  • It will help families and students to get access at schools to physical, mental and social support services; in other words, a community school concept where existing community services parents use are delivered in schools, not all over town.
  • School populations will be diverse in order to create a climate of possibilities.
  • Instructional strategies will have to be engaging to students with different abilities and interests.  This means that test driven curriculum and teaching strategy must yield to a more hands on, group based approach.
  • School cultures must be supportive and welcoming, not solely competitive for the next advanced class, targeted magnet, or gifted program.  Finding communalities must be as important as identifying exceptionalities.

There may be instances in which local district may benefit from the flexibility to try new instructional programs in a limited setting with a particular group of students.  Often state laws, district and teacher union regulations make these innovation programs difficult to implement.   Here in Gainesville, we have a charter that is affiliated with a psychologist’s clinic to help dyslexic children.  It is a unique approach that would not fit well in the district school, but the charter works with the district staff.  These collaborations can work but they are targeted to specific needs the district recognizes.

What does not work for schools is a whole sale ideology that private enterprise operates better than public responsibility.  In Florida, over a third of the charters operate for-profit, skim millions in self interested real estate and management scams, and compete directly with competent public schools thus weakening both the charter and public sectors.  The educational funding pie gets divided three ways, public, charter, and private tax vouchers which ensures no sector is adequately supported.

One of our mottos comes to mind:  School Choice is a Distraction, not a Solution.

Voucher Students Get Dismal Results

I was particularly interested in this report about Ohio.  For many years the lead author, David Figlio, conducted evaluations of Florida’s tax credit voucher program.  Figlio is a strong advocate for competition.  In Ohio, he stated that competition helped public school students but hurt students with vouchers who attended private schools.

At the risk of being overly harsh, I have to wonder if the purpose of vouchers is to create ‘sacrificial lambs’ i.e. sending some students off to fail in private schools so those remaining in public schools will do better.  Nothing in me wants to believe such an idea, but until the quality of alternative choices is assured, that is the risk parents unknowingly take.

 

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New Bill: More Money for Vouchers

The first of an expected onslaught of voucher or ‘voucher like’ bills has been filed:  HB15, Sullivan.  School choice can no longer be ignored.  The proponents have gone far beyond the smoke screen of helping poor children.  Some would argue that now they are helping themselves to public money.  Look at the numbers; you decide.  Is the state giving these children the education they deserve?

 

 

 

 

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DeVos Confirmed: Split Vote in Florida

The telephone lines to D.C. were jammed with protest votes over the DeVos nomination for U.S. Secretary of Education.  In Florida, Senator Rubio voted yes and Senator Nelson voted no.  The U.S. Senate was tied and VP Pence broke the tie.

I saw a note about a one sentence bill to abolish the Department of Education.  It was filed by Rep. Thomas Massie RKY.  He thinks local parents and communities should control schools.  He may be right.

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Blow Open School Choice Year?

It’s National School Choice Week, and Florida House leaders say this is their year to get rid of restrictions to the expansion of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships and charter schools.  House Education committee chair Michael Bileca, R.Miami and House PreK-12 Education Appropriations Chair Manny Diaz R. Hialeah are leading the charge.  They may be aided by Richard Corcoran, Speaker of the House, R. Pasco.  Corcoran’s wife started Classical Preparatory School.  It is not a Title I school; it has only 30% minority and FRL children.  The percentage of minority children (30%) is similar to the district percentage.  The difference is that Classical Prep charter has 31% who qualify for FRL while the district percentage was 56.3.  So, this charter is selecting children primarily from higher income families.  It is not clear what need this charter fills.

 

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Supreme Court Rejects FTC lawsuit

What did Florida’s Supreme Court decide?  It only decided not to decide.  The issue brought forward related to legal standing for the case.  The Supreme Court agreed with the Appeal and Circuit Court decisions that taxes owed by corporations could be diverted to private school scholarships.  In a way it is like saying that charitable contributions are tax deductible.

What the Court did not decide was whether or not the education these children receive is high quality.  The Court decided not to decide.

 

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New Bill: Why are 8th grade reading scores lower than 4th grade scores

Legislation

This one makes me smile.  Maybe even laugh.  Senator Stargel wants to study eighth grade reading.  She asks why NAEP scores for fourth graders are so much higher in Florida than for eighth graders.   Over and over educators have said that if you retain the lowest scoring third graders, they will not be in fourth grade.  When they finally do arrive, they will have learned more and be older than fourth graders in other states.  Thus, the fourth grade reading scores in Florida will be higher.  Only a handful of states retain third graders.  It is a classic smoke and mirrors tactic to inflate scores.  Yet, I am not sure legislators even think about this.

Wait, there is more.  According to the Florida Department of Education reports on the tax credit scholarships, students who struggle the most are more likely to go to private, mostly religious schools.   This year there are over 92,000 FTC students.  Most students end up leaving the private schools.  Only about 18,000 students remain in the FTC program after eighth grade.  Could it be that they have not made good progress in these small private schools that do not have certified teachers and are not held to the school grades or other accountability measures that public schools must meet?

Stargel is asking the Department of Education to study states with high performing middle schools to find out what they do.  You can read SB 360 here.  High performing states, in fact most states, do not offer tax credit scholarships to private schools.  At the latest count, I found fourteen.  Even states that do offer them do not have nearly the same percentage of participants as Florida.

Which states have high achieving eighth grade NAEP scores:   Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut.   The demographics in those states are very different from the Florida population.  They do not have tax credit vouchers.  They place a high value on quality education and less value on state accountability programs to promote student learning.

Frankly, I am encouraged that Senator Stargel is asking questions.