BY: Rich Christie
Palm Beach Post| August 2, 2015
By most measures, one would consider Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program a success.
After about 14 years, some 70,000 mostly low-income and minority students annually take advantage of vouchers that allow them the opportunity to attend any private school of their choice. And according to several studies, the program
— which provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities — also saves the state millions of dollars every year in per-pupil funding for public education.
In the face of unsuccessful lawsuits from statewide education groups like the Florida Education Association, state lawmakers have continued to expand the popular program. This school year, an expansion of the program will allow a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year to be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit.
Proponents argue that it is a natural expansion of offering parents a choice of where they want their kids to attend school, and that helping poor kids will remain the top priority. But critics argue this expansion also raises an important issue: accountability.
The Post Editorial Board recently put these questions to Jon East and Ron Matus, vice president and director of Policy and Public Affairs, respectively, for Step Up for Students (SUFS), the state’s primary administrator of the voucher program.
POST: How do you answer people when they charge that vouchers are siphoning money from public schools?
EAST: This year, there was roughly $330 million in contributions to the program, serving 70,000 students at about 1,500 schools around the state. About 97 percent of the money is used directly for scholarships, and the rest for administrative costs.
Yes, the money does follow the child. But there’ve been about seven different studies since the program began, and all show that the SUFS actually saves taxpayer money.
The amount of the scholarship is so much less than what would normally be paid to educate that student in public school. So while the student is leaving and the money is leaving, it’s costing taxpayers less to fund that student in a private school. We estimate about 60 cents on the public school dollar for per-pupil funding.
POST: Are you comfortable with the change to 260 percent of poverty to qualify for a voucher this academic year?
MATUS: There are several caveats to that. First, these wouldn’t be full scholarships. They will be partial scholarships, and will be graduated until you get to that 260 percent. Second, none of those higher income families will get a scholarship unless all of the qualifying lower-income families get one first.
The demand continues to be huge. We just had to cut off applications in May because the demand is so high for a limited number of scholarships.
POST: Is there any accountability for the quality of the private school the scholarship student attends?
EAST: Accountability in the purest sense, no. Transparency, absolutely. Every year, since 2006, every student has been required under law to take a nationally known reference test that’s approved by the state. Most of them take the Stanford Achievement Test Series, which is pretty much the gold standard.
The state reports the results of those tests every year. And beginning in 2010, they began doing something that I think was even smarter: they began to report the test results per school.
That’s very important for a program like this. It’s indirect, but it is public money. You can’t have a program like this unless you have a way to demonstrate it has value.
POST: If you have a school whose students are consistently under-performing, you keep giving them vouchers anyway?
EAST: That certainly could be the case. Under current law, there is no provision that a school could be removed from the program based on test scores.
POST: Is there anything at all that can cause a school to be removed from the program?
EAST: There’s a variety of things, but they’re not academic. There are compliance issues, i.e. health and safety, fire inspections, etc.
There have been schools that have been removed from the program for compliance types of issues; unsafe buildings, etc. But not academic.
But what you’re getting at is something that will be a debate. This program is still fledgling — after about 14 years — still growing and evolving. And as the data comes in, we will see schools that are repeated low-performers, and then there’s going to be a really interesting debate about what to do.
POST: But should taxpayers be concerned their money is being used to take kid from a well-functioning public school, and put them into a failing private school?
EAST: Here is what we know. Can a school be kicked off the program for poor results under current law? No.
We know from the data gathered every year since 2006 that consistently the students that are choosing to enter the program from a public school are in fact achieving at the lowest academic levels in the school they are leaving behind. And they are coming from the schools that are disproportionately low-performing.
That kid’s behind and just needs another environment, like a small school.
Second thing we know is that every year that they’ve been tested, the kids achieved, statistically (.1 or .2), the same gains in reading and math as all students who take the test. Which is to say, a national sample of all income levels .
POST: Are these kids getting standardized tests on things other than reading and math?
EAST: They are not. They are getting history and science, yes. But not being tested.
POST: Are they being taught evolution versus creationism at the religious schools? Is that being asked by SUFS? Are there standards based on their curriculum?
EAST: There are not. The teachers do not have to be certified. The schools do not have to be accredited.
POST: Is that a gap or hole in the program that needs to be filled? What about accountability?
EAST: Accountability isn’t just regulation. Accountability also comes with choice. When a parent can decide whether or not he or she wants to leave a school because their kid may or may not be learning, there’s accountability there too.
We don’t yet know how to regulate this. And it may be that we don’t regulate all schools in the same way necessarily because they are different.
Fortunately, so far, they fall into sort of the same bell curve as the public schools fall into. A bunch in the middle, some towards the end. But we haven’t seen a school where the test scores are horrendous.
POST: So how do you help parents shop?
EAST: Not well enough. But that industry is going to spring up. We don’t do that, but at some point, folks will come along to fill that vacuum to help parents look across all spectrums and get what they want: “I will help you shop for a school.”
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