Setting the Record Straight on Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarships

August 30, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Opponents of school choice spend a great deal of time and energy perpetuating all sorts of easily debunked myths about choice programs. In Florida, the state teachers’ union has worked very hard to spread two such myths about the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association calls a “scheme”:

“It’s a scheme because this tax credit voucher [sic] was enacted by the Legislature to circumvent a previous state Supreme Court ruling saying that public money could not go to fund vouchers,” he said. “So the Legislature set up a scheme that would allow certain types of taxes to be ‘donated’ to the groups administering the voucher program. So instead of paying taxes to the state, they were forgiven their tax obligation if they donated the exact same amount of money to the voucher administrators.”

Fortunately, the Daily Commercial gave Ron Matus of Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization, the opportunity to set the record straight:

“The union kept saying the tax credit scholarships were done to circumvent the ruling,” he said. “Their timeline is off. The fact of the matter is the tax credit scholarship program was passed by the legislature and signed into law in 2001, five years before the Supreme Court ruling. The opponent keeps arguing the program drains money from public schools. Every single study that has been done over many years by multiple different parties that has looked at the fiscal impact says it does not harm public schools or drain money from public schools.”

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimated the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program saved the state $36.2 million in 2008.

Government Accountability stated that while the program “reduces the amount of tax revenues received by the state, it produces a net fiscal benefit.”

This academic year, Step Up for Students will provide more than 90,000 tax-credit scholarships to students so that they can attend the school of their choice. Additionally, they will administer nearly 6,000 education savings accounts. Florida also has a second scholarship organization, AAA Scholarship Foundation, so it’s likely that more than 100,000 Florida students will receive tax-credit scholarships this year.

As Step Up demonstrates, scholarship organizations do much more than just cut checks. They also can provide parents with vital information about their educational options, help connect parents and schools, and–when necessary–they can organize to defend the scholarships from outside attacks. As Jay noted in a recent post, politically viable policies require “constituents who can then be mobilized to protect and expand” them. School choice policies generate those constituents, and as Step Up has amply demonstrated, scholarship organizations can mobilize them.


Lawsuit Losers’ Ostrich Act

August 17, 2016
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Anti-school choice plaintiffs pretending that the court didn’t reject their arguments on the merits.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As I reported on Tuesday, a Florida appellate court threw out a challenge to the state’s tax-credit scholarship program. In response, one of the plaintiff groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), published a disingenuous and factually challenged blog post whining about the case being dismissed and pretending that the court didn’t actually address the merits of the case. I’ll address their assertions in order:

A Florida court just threw out an appeal brought by Americans United and its allies challenging a school-voucher-like program that provides taxpayer support for religious organizations. As disappointing as that outcome is, it’s doubly frustrating to see a second Sunshine State court fail to even consider the merits of the case.

The program provides tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations that help students attend any private school, religious or secular, so that’s not quite an accurate description of the program.

Moreover, as I will explain below, the court did consider the merits of the case. Although courts often avoid addressing the merits of a case when rejecting the plaintiffs’ standing to bring the case, here the court directly addressed the central issues in the process of dismissing the case on standing.

In case you’re not familiar with tuition tax credits, they are a type of voucher scheme that allows individuals or corporations to donate money to a middle-man “scholarship” organization in exchange for a generous tax credit. The “scholarship” group then writes a check for tuition at a private school. It’s essentially a way to launder government funds through a private entity.

What an odd use of scare quotes. Are these somehow not scholarships? Let’s consult the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines a “scholarship” as “an amount of money that is given by a school, an organization, etc., to a student to help pay for the student’s education.” So yes, AU scare quotes notwithstanding, these are bona fide scholarships.

But are they “laundered government funds”? According to the unanimous Florida appellate court, the U.S. Supreme Court, and every state supreme court to address the question, the answer is a resounding “No.” The courts all held that a private individual or corporation’s money is their own, and not the government’s, until the government has actually collected it. When people keep their own money through tax deductions, tax credits, or tax exemptions, it remains exactly that: their own money.

Does the AU believe that all churches run on “laundered government money” because their donors receive tax deductions or because they receive 100% property tax exemptions? No? Interesting.

The overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the tax credit program are religious, which goes against the Florida Constitution’s “no-aid” clause, which says: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

Again, as the court ruled, it’s not government money, so the historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment (“no-aid” clause) is not implicated. Moreover, the percentage of schools that are religious versus secular is constitutionally irrelevant. The law is religiously neutral. What matters is only that families may choose either religious or secular schools. It makes no constitutional difference whether the majority select one type or the other, or whether the market (responding to demand) supplies more of one type or another.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected AU’s religious bean counting, including in the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision more than a decade ago:

Respondents and Justice Souter claim that even if we do not focus on the number of participating schools that are religious schools, we should attach constitutional significance to the fact that 96% of scholarship recipients have enrolled in religious schools. They claim that this alone proves parents lack genuine choice, even if no parent has ever said so. We need not consider this argument in detail, since it was flatly rejected in Mueller, where we found it irrelevant that 96% of parents taking deductions for tuition expenses paid tuition at religious schools. Indeed, we have recently found it irrelevant even to the constitutionality of a direct aid program that a vast majority of program benefits went to religious schools. See Agostini, 521 U.S., at 229 (“Nor are we willing to conclude that the constitutionality of an aid program depends on the number of sectarian school students who happen to receive the otherwise neutral aid” (citing Mueller, 463 U.S., at 401)); see also Mitchell, 530 U.S., at 812, n. 6 (plurality opinion) (“[Agostini] held that the proportion of aid benefiting students at religious schools pursuant to a neutral program involving private choices was irrelevant to the constitutional inquiry”); id., at 848 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment) (same) (quoting Agostini, supra, at 229). The constitutionality of a neutral educational aid program simply does not turn on whether and why, in a particular area, at a particular time, most private schools are run by religious organizations, or most recipients choose to use the aid at a religious school. As we said in Mueller, “[s]uch an approach would scarcely provide the certainty that this field stands in need of, nor can we perceive principled standards by which such statistical evidence might be evaluated.” 463 U.S., at 401. [emphasis added]

The SCOTUS majority goes on to note that the other side’s obsession over how many private schools have a religious affiliation ignores that they are but a tiny slice of all the available school choices, including the secular district schools that the vast majority of students attend. Students do not lack secular options.

Returning to the AU blog post, the author claims:

The program also violates the state constitution by taking money away from public schools.

No, the appellate court specifically and repeatedly rejected this argument, noting that any reduction in aid to the district schools is entirely speculative. As the appellate court detailed at length, the AU and their allies proved unable time and time again to demonstrate any harm that the district schools incur from the scholarship program.

Despite those problems, two Florida courts have now kicked the case on standing – that is, the right to sue – saying that the plaintiffs, which include interfaith religious leaders as well as educators, don’t even have the right to bring this case. As a result, neither court weighed in on the actual facts of the case.

Incorrect. As noted above, like the district court before it, the appellate court addressed the main issues that plaintiffs raised:

  1. Does the scholarship program violate the Blaine Amendment? A: No, it relies on private funds so the Blaine Amendment is not implicated.
  2. Does the scholarship program unconstitutionally create a parallel system of public schools? A: No, this is a privately funded and privately administered program, not a separate government school system.
  3. Does the scholarship program harm the district school system? A: No, there is no evidence of any harm to the district schools.

The AU and their union allies don’t like the answers that the appellate and district court gave, so they simply pretend that they didn’t give them.

Since the court didn’t weigh in on the facts, here are some other things to consider: Sometimes “school choice” advocates claim low-income students need government assistance to escape “failing” schools. But here, some parents openly admitted that the public school options available to them are actually good.

Here we have a straw man argument. The question isn’t whether the district schools are “good” but rather whether they’re the best fit for all the kids who happen to live nearby. Even a school that performs very well on average can’t be all things to all students, which is why the system should empower parents to choose the schools that align with their values and work best for their children.

So why do they want help paying private school tuition? The short answer is that many of them want education infused with their faith. […] That’s perfectly fine. But Florida taxpayers should not be forced to contribute to the religious education of any child.

Again, as the court ruled, these are private funds. No taxpayer is forced to contribute to a scholarship organization. If a taxpayer doesn’t want to support religious education, they need only refrain from donating to the scholarship organizations, which is certainly their right.

By contrast, all taxpayers are forced to pay into the district school system, even if they have moral objections to what is taught there. If the AU really cared so much about coercion, they should support entirely privatizing education so that no one is forced to subsidize an education with which they disagree.


Case Dismissed Again: Another Victory for School Choice in Florida

August 16, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

It seems Friday’s update on pending school choice lawsuits came a few days too soon. Today, a three-judge panel of appellate court judges in Florida has unanimously dismissed the teachers’ union’s lawsuit against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they were unable to prove that they were harmed by the program and because the program is privately (not publicly) funded.

No doubt the thousands of parents and students who rallied earlier this year, calling on the union to #dropthesuit, are smiling today.

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Three out of three appellate judges agree with these scholarship kids: #dropthesuit.

I expanded upon the decision at Cato-at-Liberty, but I’ll leave you with the the judges’ conclusion:

Appellants failed to allege that they suffered any special injury as a result of the operation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and failed to establish that the Legislature exceeded any constitutional limitation on its taxing and spending authority when it authorized the program. At most, Appellants quarrel with the Legislature’s policy judgments regarding school choice and funding of Florida’s public schools. This is precisely the type of dispute into which the courts must decline to intervene under the separation of powers doctrine.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!

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[h/t Travis Pillow at RedefinED.]

UPDATE (Aug. 17, 2016): See here for my discussion of one plaintiff group’s response to the ruling.

 


Florida Teachers are Poorly Represented by the Offensive Actions and Attitudes of the Florida Education Association

August 28, 2014

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(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Florida Education Association already filed a lawsuit against an expansion of the Florida tax credit program and the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts on procedural grounds. In so doing, the FEA leadership broadly and Vice President Joanne McCall in particular engaged in utter hypocrisy as they had used an identical procedure to get a large teacher pay raise the session before. In the process a FEA official described the special needs students who could benefit from participation in the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program as “collateral casualties.”

So well, if referring to children with disabilities as casualties wasn’t revealing enough about where the well-being of children fall on the priority list of the FEA, today we have a new example from Florida FEA Vice President Joanne McCall. The FEA joined with the Florida School Boards Association in a legal attack on the Florida tax credit program. The families of 60,000 low-income Florida children use this program to finance their education. As mentioned earlier the program has generated a variety of positive evaluations.

Parents feel very strongly about outside groups trying to force their child out of the school they have selected to best meet their needs. Their child’s learning and their network of friends is all being put under assault by this incredibly callous action by the FBSA and FEA.  In a move that should shock no one, a group of these aggrieved parents have protested the FEA’s action outside of their headquarters in Tallahassee.

Here is the response from Twitter for Florida Education Association VP Joanne McCall:

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I can’t imagine a more revealing statement. First children with disabilities were “collateral casualties” to the absurd and misguided fears and hatred of the FEA. Now low-income parents who simply want to exercise the same freedom that higher income families take for granted to choose the best school for their child are “hit dogs.” Perhaps it is necessary to dehumanize your victims in your mind before making them into a casualty.

These children and these parents of course are human beings-people with hopes, dreams and aspirations. The only thing accurate about the statement is that the FEA has indeed struck these people. They have cruelly and needlessly introduced fear and uncertainty into their already difficult lives. McCall and her entire organization should be ashamed of what they have done.


FEA: We Love Late Amendments to Omnibus K-12 Bills! No We HATE THEM, Oh, what are WE DOING?!?!?

August 7, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the Florida legislature adopted an $18.4 million dollar ESA program for children with severe disabilities as a late amendment to an omnibus education bill. The Florida Education Association has filed suit against the state, loudly trumpeting its desire to defend due process, the rule of law and the American way.

Joanne McCall, the Vice President of the Florida Education Association wrote the following in a newspaper column titled Lawsuit tackles Legislature’s ‘backdoor’ way of passing bills:

We’re all taught to play by the rules. In a civil society, we rely on rules and procedures and laws as we go about our daily routine. When people break the rules, they’re expected to be held accountable for their actions — whether it’s within your family, on the job or at school, or in our society as a whole. The Legislature is no exception. There are rules and procedures in the Florida Constitution, in Florida statutes and in the House and Senate chambers that set out the right way to do things — such as pass a law.

I have yet to read Rules for Radicals but I gather that it recommends a rather cut-throat ends-justify-the-means casual attitude about the truth. Practitioners should have learned from the Dan Rather implosion over “fake but accurate” however that it is awfully easy for people to check up on things these days, and thus a rather simple matter to unmask shallow, self-serving hypocrisy. Someone may want to write a Saul Alinsky for Dummies updated for the internet age, it might lead to a more honest debate and avoid needless bumbling.

Take the Florida Education Association’s current antics for example. Jon East over at RedefinED for instance found that the Florida Education Association supported a $480,000,000 teacher pay raise through almost an identical legislative process a mere two sessions ago: late amendment attached to an omnibus education bill. It does not take an overly active imagination to think that this is probably not the first such incident employed by the FEA, simply the most recent.

The Florida Education Association was strangely silent concerning procedural preferences when the last-minute amendment to an omnibus education bill netted a $480,000,000 teacher pay raise.

In fact, Florida Education Association President Andy Ford praised Governor Rick Scott for getting ‘er done:

Ford said, “FEA thanks Governor Scott for his efforts to provide an immediate across-the-board pay increase to Florida’s classroom teachers in recognition of their demonstrated performance which has brought Florida’s education system to sixth in the nation.  FEA applauds the infusion of additional resources into public education as was proposed by the Governor.

Ford could have objected to the procedure used to get this teacher pay raise, and even could have filed suit to stop it. Instead he thanked Governor Scott for pulling it off and groused over some of the details of the funding. One year later a remarkably similar legislative procedure creates a $18.4 million program for children with severe disabilities, and the FEA sends their Vice President out into the papers to wax poetic about legislative process:

These laws failed to pass the right way. They went through the legislative process and didn’t get enough votes to be enacted. So legislative leaders came up with a way to circumvent the rules. This was a backdoor way for legislative leaders to enact measures that had already failed. We all have to be accountable for our actions, even the leaders of the Florida Legislature.

So the $480,000,000 question for the FEA: are you willing to give up the half a billion pay increase and everything else that you have passed over the years through late amendments to omnibus education bills to quash an $18.4 million program for children with severe disabilities?


“Pawns” can become Queens if not carelessly sacrificed

August 4, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Florida Education Association has filed suit in an effort to kill SB 850, that included the creation of the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, Florida’s new ESA program. The Goldwater Institute has intervened in the case on behalf of a group of parents enrolled in the new program. During the press conference, a radio reporter asked the parents the following question:

Rick Flagg: This is one for the parents in general, whoever wants to (take it). Your bill was going to pass, regardless. And then the Legislature stuck the corporate voucher provision on there, making this lawsuit inevitable. I’d like to know how you feel about the Legislature doing that to you, and in effect using your kids as pawns in the voucher fight. That’s not for you …

PLSA parent Ashli McCall: I don’t mind being exploited in this manner because I believe in it.

Rick Flagg: Does everyone pretty much agree with that? (Heads nod.) And you’re okay now with them using your kids as the face for this lawsuit? You’re okay with being used as pawns again?

Clint Bolick: I object obviously to the characterization.

Rick Flagg: How would you describe it then?

Clint Bolick: I would describe it as a program that was made part of an omnibus education reform bill. And these parents, are they in jeopardy of losing those opportunities? No question about it. How is that being made a pawn?

How indeed?

I have never met Mr. Flagg, but I assume that he’s a swell guy who loves his momma, waives the flag on the 4th of July and cheers for his favorite sports teams. Flagg may simply have his cynicism cannon pointed in the wrong direction.  Perhaps if he knew more about the travails of students with special needs and their parents, he wouldn’t second guess the decision of parents to participate in the program or to defend it in court. If Mr. Flagg had walked in the shoes of parents facing these challenges, it would not seem implausible to him that they might want to participate in a program that provides the opportunity for a truly individualized education plan for their child. It has been, after all, the unfulfilled promise of special education law from the outset.

The following is my distillation of the history of the travails of special education parents and students, as related by a joint project of the Progressive Policy Institute and the Thomas B.. Fordham Foundation. If you want to double-check me read it for yourself here. My summary is as follows:

Back in the early 1970s, a reported 1,000,000 special needs children were denied access to public schools.  As in, sorry, we don’t take your kind around here denied access to public schools. The federal government took action to put an end to this discrimination. While the legislation that evolved into today’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act stands as a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, it did not fulfill the promise of an “individual education plan” for every child with a disability.  The federal government had promised to pick up 40% of the costs for special education services, but never entirely followed through. Educators complain endlessly about paperwork requirements and bureaucratic procedures. The PPI/FF tome describes the process in-school process for identifying and developing an education plan “an invitation for conflict” between schools and parents. Parents have a right to sue when districts fail to provide an appropriate education (2% of special needs children nationwide attend private schools at public expense either directly or indirectly as a result of this provision) but this is an option far more available to wealthy families due to the cost of specialized services.  What started as a system for granting access and providing individual education plans devolved into a system of CYA whereby districts wished to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit and far too many parents were left deeply disaffected. Process became the focus, not outcomes.

Despite the fact that only a tiny minority of special education students have debilitating disabilities precluding academic progress, an attitude of warehousing is not far from the surface among too many people. For instance, a school district official made the following statement to the Arizona Republic in 2011 regarding the state’s grading system and the emphasis on the gains of low-performing students:

“Our concern is that many of those in the lowest 25 percent are special-education students and . . . will probably always have a hard time.”

This prophecy is not only disgusting but falls straight into the self-fulfilling category: kids will automatically face a hard time if the adults in charge of their education don’t believe they can make academic progress. Mind you that like all other public schools, Arizona districts receive additional funds for special needs students, but bristle at the thought of being held to account for the learning progress of those students. One can only draw the inference that they see their role as warehousing special needs children, not educating them. The soft bigotry of low-expectations lives and breathes.

The PLSA parents are not pawns- they are doing what the parents of special needs children have been forced to do for decades: fighting for their children. If the FEA suit prevails, they lose the ability to take control of the education of their child. They have a direct interest in the outcome, and decided not to be a passive “collateral casualty” of the teacher’s union. The less the special education system operates as a “take it or leave it” system for those who cannot afford expensive attorneys the more children we will see reach their potential. Mr. Flagg lives in a state that has made remarkable progress for special needs children in public school while not coincidentally making them all eligible to attend a public or private school of their choice, so let’s avoid any pretense that this is going to hurt the public school system.

So my question for Mr. Flagg is as follows: if you were forced to repeat life as a special needs child, would you want your parents to have an opt-out for you if they found you in a school run by people checking off boxes on a form, unconcerned with your progress, and displaying the attitude expressed above? If not, why would you make yourself a willing pawn-a mere funding unit- of a public school ignoring your needs?  Even pawns have the potential to become a queen if not carelessly sacrificed.

If so, welcome to the parental choice movement. All is forgiven.

 

 

 

 

 


Florida Education Association Bemoans their Self-Imposed Exile

September 24, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andy Ford, President of the Florida Education Association wrote a piece for the Orlando Sentinel complaining about Florida’s accountability system. Ford’s piece connects the usual dots- complaining about the status-quo while offering no specifics for how a system of academic transparency should operate. Mr. Ford warms up with this doozy of a paragraph:

The former education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, recently resigned after a year on the job. Robinson inherited a flawed and punitive accountability system laden with standardized tests that was put in place 13 years ago by Gov. Jeb Bush, overseen by Patricia Levesque at his Foundation for Florida’s Future and endlessly promoted by legislators who favor for-profit schools, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Before I get to the accountability system, let me briefly address the Jeb Bush/Foundation for Florida’s Future conspiracy theory bit. Florida operates as a democracy, complete with elections in which citizens choose their officials who then make decisions regarding K-12 and other sorts of state policy. The voters twice chose Jeb Bush to serve as their governor, but he has been a private citizen since **ahem** 2007.

The Foundation for Florida’s Future does indeed seek policies to improve Florida public schools. This however occurs within a typical system of democratic pluralism in which many groups contend for influence, including of course Mr. Ford’s Florida Education Association. Guidestar reveals that the FEA had revenues more than twenty times larger than those of the Foundation in 2010 (the latest year available).

The FEA’s difficulties originate with their suspect ideas rather than their flush bank account. Ford’s characterization of Florida’s accountability system as “flawed and punitive” is a fine example. This “flawed” system has in fact produced remarkable results, especially for disadvantaged children. The chart below for instance compares the literacy gains on the Nation’s Report Card for Free and Reduced lunch eligible Florida students in 1998 (the year before Florida’s reforms) and 2011 (the most recent results available).

Notice that the “good ole days” in Florida (pre-reform) were a disaster for low-income children. A whopping 37% of Florida’s low-income 4th graders had learned to read according to NAEP’s standards in 1998. A lack of transparency and accountability may have suited the FEA fine, but it was nothing less than catastrophic for Florida’s low-income children. Thirteen years into the “flawed” system, that figure was up to 62 percent. The goal of Florida policymakers should clearly be to accelerate this impressive progress rather than to go back to the failed practices of the past.

Put another way, if Mr. Ford considers this system “flawed” then Florida lawmakers should quickly implement something that he would judge to be “catastrophically flawed.” Note also that Florida’s public school teachers deserve to celebrate these gains as much as anyone. The FEA however opposed the reforms that produced them tooth and nail, costing them credibility (especially when they continue to complain today).

As for “punitive” well…Florida’s school grades have improved along with their NAEP and FCAT scores. Just how “punitive” can a system be when it delivers 10 times as many A/B grades as D/F grades?

If and when the FEA matches coherent child-centered policy with their massive financial and human resources, there can be little doubt that they will exercise a large amount of influence over Florida K-12 policy. Until then they can continue to bemoan their self-imposed exile from the adult conversation over how to provide Florida children with a genuine shot at the American Dream.