Florida Tax Credit Scholarships Need The Light of Day

business-257880_1280We will do a series of posts on educational issues likely to come up in the Florida legislative session.  We would like to hear from other states as well.  Let’s begin with the accountability of the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarship program.

What are the children learning; where is the money going, and how is it spent?

Keeping track of the $86 million for 67, 142 students in over 1400 schools is no easy task.  Transparency issues in reporting have arisen in charter schools.   Senator Legg, Chair of the Education Committee indicated that remedies would be made.  How can he improve transparency in the private school sector for tax credit vouchers?

The 2014 law, SB850, to expand FTC scholarships does have some provisions for accountability.  See the Senate Bill Advances Accountability Provisions for Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program.   The program evaluation, however, will be different next year, and the long term evaluator has been replaced.

Achievement Testing.  The evaluation of student achievement gains for public and private schools may have taken a big step backward.   Public schools no longer administer the Stanford Achievement Test that many private schools use.  Private schools are exempt from state assessments.  As a result, there is no common benchmark to compare student achievement for public and private school students.  Don Gaetz, former President of the Florida Senate, supported requiring state assessments for tax credit scholarships to private schools, but Senator Stargel and many House members opposed it.  Senator Gaetz lost that skirmish.

The new evaluation approach approved by the legislature is criticized for making private school student achievement gains even less valid.  The provisions in the new law promise ‘apples to apples’ comparisons of school achievement for private and public schools.  The focus, however, will be on schools with the largest number of FTC students, not all students.   When all students do not take the same tests, the comparison is more akin to “How similar are apples and oranges to mangoes.  The former evaluator, Professor David Figlio from Northwestern University, made this point in his 2013 report.  Return to Beware of Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics to see Professor Figlio’s concerns.

The evaluation requirements in SB850 FTC Evaluation are not spelled out.  See the following limitations:

Compare to the extent possible the scholarship students’ performance to the public school students with similar socio economic backgrounds …using an agreed upon methodology and data supplied by the Florida Department of Education. 

—Include school data for schools with 51% of FTC students if there are 30 students enrolled.  There were approximately 100 of the 1144 schools who met this criterion in 2013.

Fiscal and Management Oversight.  Very limited improved financial accountability measures have been enacted.  The provision requires:

Site visits to 7 schools per year to verify enrollment and attendance data, teaching credentials, teacher background and finger printing data. There are over 1400 schools.

—An annual financial audit by the Auditor General of the non profit organization that distributes the scholarships to the private schools is a step forward.  The schools themselves, however, are not audited.  The foundation administering the funds (Step Up for Students) must report annually the number of scholarship applications received and approved by county, grade, and funding category.  The amount of money received and spent must be reported.  A detailed accounting must be provided describing how the administrative funds were spent under paragraph (6)(j).  This is due to the past practice of the Foundation to contribute to political campaigns and influence the black community.  However, in a Miami Herald article, Kathleen McGrory refutes the effectiveness of the prohibition.  The budget provisions appear to contradict or at least not restrict expenditures that support an advocacy effort.

Senate Bill 850 expanded the FTC scholarship program.  It now includes families of four with incomes up to $62,000.  It is a program to support religious schools. Seventy three percent of FTC students attend them.   It is not a program to help families leave struggling schools.  According to the latest evaluation report, 43% of new FTC students come from public schools with ‘A’ grades; 9.3% come from schools receiving D/F grades. Students who struggle the most return to public schools and are behind.  FTC achievement gains are, on average, no better than gains other students.  The range is achievement among the types of schools by religious categories is very broad.

Why are we doing this?  Is it just to save money at the expense of the public schools?  Will this new accountability plan actually be transparent?  Will we be given a clear picture of the effectiveness and efficiency of FTC scholarships?

Posted in Audits, Education Committee, Florida, Florida Senate, Tax credit scholarships, Testing.

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