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.


Florida’s Katie Swingle testifies on ESA: “I want the rest of the country to watch this”

March 8, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

“Mrs. Swingle gave the close on the bill” indeed.


Space-age kid caught in a cave-man system, until now

October 27, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Dayton Beach News Journal has a piece on the new ESA program- Florida’s Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. We’ve already seen one Arizona ESA parent display a much deeper understanding of the term “accountability” than a number of think-tankers can seem to muster, and this story brings another gem of insight from a participating parent. The News Journal story relates the educational challenges facing a student named Brandon Bremen. Mr. Bremen is working to overcome autism, muscular dystrophy, seizures and an impaired immune system. Brandon had tried everything from public schools, a McKay scholarship voucher to education as a home-bound student with an occasional visit from a teacher. Brandon’s mother Donna sums it up:

Berman stresses she’s not opposed to public schools (she points out her daughter, Bailey, graduated from Atlantic High School in May). She praised the public school staff members’ efforts to help her son, saying she feels they did everything they could within the constraints of state mandates and limited resources. But she felt the schools couldn’t keep up with Brandon.

“It’s unfortunate when you have a space-age child with a caveman system,” Berman said. “His needs out-taxed what the public school is able to give him.”

My reaction to reading this:

LIGHTBULB!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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 Creates the Nation’s Second Account Based K-12 Choice Program

May 2, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Florida legislature has passed the nation’s second account based choice program- known as the Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts.  Florida students with disabilities, including those in public, private and home schools can apply to the program, which has multiple allowable uses including private school tuition, therapies, digital learning, curriculum and prepaid college savings. The program will be administered through the preexisting scholarship groups but will be state funded, receiving a $18.4 million appropriation.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Arizona originated scholarship tax credits and Floridians have documented evidence of the effectiveness of the concept for both participant and competitive effects.   Account based choice programs also originated in Arizona, and the race is now on to see which state can best prove out the concept.  Congratulations to choice advocates in the Sunshine State- and welcome to the party!

Who’s next?