For the past 20 years, a private organization has been growing exponentially using direct and indirect public funds largely out of public view. This organization is the conduit for an unregulated school system without standards being created by the Florida Legislature. It is essentially a money management/marketing firm operating as a non-profit charity.
The organization is called Step Up for Students (StepUpForStudents.org), an SFO (Scholarship Funding Organization) that awards and manages tax credit scholarships for the state of Florida, as well as in Alabama. According to Forbes, Step Up is the 21st largest charity in the United States. To put that in perspective, the American Cancer Society is 18th. In 2019 Step Up and Subsidiaries had $697,363,075 in total assets.
Step Up receives donations from corporations who receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on corporate and certain sales taxes owed to the state of Florida. Billions of dollars have been diverted to Step Up instead of having been deposited into general revenue to operate state government, including public schools. These tax diversions have been cleverly labeled as “donations.”
The League of Women Voters of Florida has just released an investigative report that details the history, financial dealings, political connections, and audit findings for Step Up for Students. The full report is available here.
Miami is the school choice capital! According to this EducationNext article, 20% of Miami’s public schools are charters. Another 20% of students are in private schools, and approximately half of those are paid for with vouchers and tax credit scholarships. It does not stop there. District-run choice programs now enroll 61% of public school children. Is this a school choice dream or a nightmare?
Dade County schools tout high academic achievement. The district receives an ‘A’ grade from the state and no failing school grades. Of course, there are only 15 schools in the state that have an ‘F’ rating, so Miami is not unique there. An ‘A’ school only has to earn 62% of the possible points based on state assessment test scores etc. Over one-half of all Florida’s schools earn an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade.
Miami’s fourth grade students rank above the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test, but there is no statistically significant difference between Duval, Hillsborough and Dade Counties’ scores. Could it be that third grade retention pushes Florida scores up because so many fourth graders were retained?
The Dade County eighth grade NAEP scores also seem to be higher in comparison to other cities. Yet, the average Miami-Dade score is right at the national average. Miami’s high school graduation rate is just below the national average. It would seem that Miami-Dade is good at hype. The reality is quite different on the ground.
According to the report ‘Tough Choices‘, Miami is the second most segregated district in the state. Of 460 schools in Miami, 214 are considered isolated. They are more than 85% single race. Miami’s lowest performing schools are overwhelmingly black. Hispanic students also tend to be enrolled in segregated schools.
Is this what Florida is striving for? Our schools are driven by grades which are easy to manipulate. Yet, Florida, the third largest state in the nation, is just average in student achievement and children are increasingly separated by race and economic status.
Choice has had an impact in Miami-Dade, but it is on the lives of families and funding for school facilities. One wonders how families manage the challenges presented by so many choices, many of which are not good choices.
*What happens when parents chose a school, but the school does not chose their child? How do parents manage when their child’s school is located an hour’s drive away?
*What happens when children are told that their school is not a ‘good fit’ for them.
*What happens when a parent realizes that the teachers at their charter or private school are not well qualified and tend to leave quickly?
*How does a parent console a child whose test scores do not qualify for a magnet program but his friend’s score does. The score difference may be minimal, but the impact is not. This is the world that broad-based choice creates. A feeling of anxiety permeates these schools defeating a child’s willingness to learn.
Florida will expand its career and technical programs in the next legislative session. adding another level of complexity,.Finding competent teachers for these skills will be a challenge. Even more difficult, Florida closure rate for charters is exceptionally high.
You have to tell it like it is, especially when so many people have so much money invested in a failing education reform policy. Read the summary of the report: Twenty Years Later: Jeb Bush’s A+ Plan fails Florida’s Childrenposted by Diane Ravitch. Find out the hard truth about the impact of the A+ Plan on student achievement, school grades, teaching, and communities. Insist on an end to policies that seek to destroy public schools and rob children of a high quality education.
Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris sent out this warning about the false messages that sell privatization of public schools. Their message is clear. You can read it here. in the Gazette. The money is taken from public schools. It too often is used in corrupt ways. They reflect false promises.
I have always liked Peter Green’s posts, in part because I smile at the word ‘curmudgeon.’ In his post, he tells it like it is about HB 7070, Florida’s latest voucher bill. You can read it here.
For several months I have been working on an analysis of the Florida A+ Plan. It should be released soon. I have been looking at the data and asking “How bad is it?” Florida’s education policy doesn’t just have flaws, it hurts kids.
This is a piece written by Kathleen Oropeza from Fund Education Now. Will the Florida legislature ruin our educational system and substitute a low quality, corrupt choice system of schools? Is everything to be done ‘on the cheap’ so a few people can make a lot of money at public expense? Read Kathleen’s take here.
Family Empowerment Scholarships help parents make a choice you pay for. There is a logic disconnect in this idea when there is no guarantee that the choice parents’ make is even a good choice. Read Sally’s article in the Tallahassee Democrat. She is a League member who is taking an active role in monitoring the legislative bills coming from this session. This is a bill that is contrary to all who support public education believe.
Senator Diaz wants more victims of bullying to go to private schools. Last year, only 126 of 212 applications were approved. The new bill, SB 1410 allows parents to go to Step Up for Students and file a claim. No verification of the claim by the school district would be necessary. The bill also provides for a transportation scholarship.
These are the 2018 Hope scholarships that sales taxes from new car sales fund. Of course the other voucher bill that Governor DeSantis proposed allows anyone to get a voucher whose family income is under 260% of the federal poverty level….let’s see, that’s any family of four earning less than about $63,000 dollars. No pretense for serving the poor any longer. The Florida constitution does not matter much either evidently.
Today’s editorial in the Sun Sentinel is a good summary of the poor reasoning behind the vouchers and tax credit scholarships to private schools. Private just is not better and can be worse. Given the lack of transparency, parents do not know which is which. You can read the editorial here.
Much of what has been happening with these tax credit vouchers has been under the radar. I took a peek, and here is what has happened lately. The cost keeps going up, but are corporations getting fed up?
Changes in the FTC program funding are reflected in the automatic increase in the cap for corporate donations, the expansion in eligible funding sources, changes in family income eligibility guidelines, and the increase in percentage of the per student allocations for public schools allowed for private school scholarships.
Most years, excluding 2016-17, the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program saw a 10,000 student increase in participation. In 2016, the enrollment doubled from the previous year due to legislative changes in eligibility. In 2018-19, however, enrollment dropped by 10,000 due to a decline in corporate donations.
• In 2016-17, the income qualifications based on a family of four were raised to 185% -260% of poverty level or from about $44,123 to approximately $62,000 per year. The proportional amount of the full scholarships are reduced for middle income families.
• FTC scholarships are funded from corporate tax rebates up to a designated funding cap. The program funding sources were expanded to include credits against insurance premium tax for contributions to eligible non-profit SFOs, severance taxes on oil and gas production, sales tax liabilities of direct pay permit holders, and alcoholic beverages taxes.
• There is a 25% automatic increase in the cap as long as enrollment exceeds 90% of the cap.
• The amount of the scholarship was originally set at 72% of the FEFP per student funding for public schools, but an automatic increase was provided up to 82% of FEFP in 2016-17. In 2017, the FEFP percentage was again increased from 82%, depending upon grade level, to 88-96%. The maximum award in 2017-18 was $5,886. Step Up has reported a 10,000 student decrease in 2018-19 FTC enrollment due to a decline in corporate donations.
• In 2017-18, Step Up distributed $689 million of the dollars to 108,000 students in over 1700 private, mostly religious schools. These donations were about 10% below the allowable cap. This year, corporate pledges are $687 million. The largest corporate donors to the FTC scholarships are the beverage industry and United Health Care.
• Tax Credit Scholarship Expansion. Given the projected decrease in corporate funding, the legislature turned to donations from sales taxes for new cars to expand the FTC program. These are called Hope Scholarships and were implemented in 2018-19. The maximum scholarship award for a student ranges from $6519 to $7111 for those whose family income is no more than double the federal poverty level. There were 66 participating students in fall of 2018.