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

case-dismissed

(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.

 


Case Dismissed: Victory for School Choice in Florida

May 24, 2016

case-dismissed

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The legal attacks on school choice programs are dropping like characters in a George R.R. Martin novel. Last week, a Nevada judge dismissed a case against the state’s education savings account program. Today, a Florida judge dismissed a case against several of the state’s school choice programs.

The Florida lawsuit originally concerned whether the state was adequately funding public education, but in 2014 the plaintiffs amended their suit to challenge a wide range of policies, including state accountability statutes, charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, and the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. Last year, a judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the private school choice programs, but this ruling also rejects their substantive claims that the choice programs somehow harm the traditional district school system:

[T]he Court finds no negative effect on the uniformity or efficiency of the State system of public schools due to these choice programs, and indeed, evidence was presented that these school-choice programs are reasonably likely to improve the quality and efficiency of the entire system. […]

Plaintiffs’ specific allegations regarding the constitutional implications of three of Florida’s choice programs- charter schools, the FTC Program, and the McKay Program- are similarly unsupported by the weight of the evidence. […]

The Court has already held that Plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the FTC Program, and the Court further concludes that the weight of the evidence does not support their speculative allegations that the FTC Program diverts state funding or has any material, detrimental effect on Florida’s system of public schools.

The weight of the evidence similarly does not support Plaintiffs’ allegations about the McKay Program, which is limited to “Students with Disabilities” and requires eligible students to have an individual educational or accommodation plan under federal law. […] As indicated by the Florida Supreme Court, parental decisions to send individual children with special needs to private school do not implicate the uniformity of the broader public school system- regardless of whether some of those parents accept scholarship funds from the State.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!

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This decision constitutes one more legal stake in the heart of the canard that educational choice programs harm students attending traditional district schools. As Jon East pointed out at RedefinED yesterday, judges presiding over a separate anti-choice lawsuit in Florida cast a gimlet eye on similar claims during oral arguments last week:

[Florida Education Association] attorney Lynn Hearn: “The loss of $300 million at a minimum to the Florida public school system … is absolutely a fact.”

Presiding Judge Lori S. Rowe: “In your complaint, you haven’t actually alleged that there is a $300 million loss to the Florida education budget, have you?… In fact, the $300 million you’re referring to are the funds that flow into the scholarship program, correct?”

Attorney Hearn: “Well, that’s where the number arrives from, your honor. But we absolutely do allege that that amount has left the public schools in favor of the scholarship program. That’s because of the way the Florida schools are funded. They are funded on a per-student basis. So, during that year, 2013-14, there were 60,000 students who left the Florida public school system.”

Judge Ross L. Bilbrey: “But doesn’t that mean there are 60,000 fewer students that the state has to pay to educate?”

Attorney Hearn: “It does your honor. But the funding of students in our public schools is, uh, we’re not funding widgets, the funding formula for students is not a perfect correlation to the variable cost of funding that student.”

Judge Rowe: “But exactly what is the special injury you are articulating here? You haven’t alleged that any individual student is suffering. You haven’t alleged that per-student funding has been reduced. You haven’t even alleged that the education budget has been reduced.”

Essentially, the union wants to argue the district school system has some special claim on students–and therefore the public funds attached to those students–without openly making that claim. After all, the district school system can’t suffer a “loss” unless they somehow owned those funds to begin with, but parents have no such obligation to enroll their children at their zoned district school, or any district school for that matter. They feel entitled to those children and the corresponding funding, but they know they can’t make that claim explicitly because, well, it’s ludicrous. That’s why the union is having such a hard time articulating any special injury–and why they’re likely to lose that lawsuit as well.

For more information on today’s decision, see Travis Pillow’s write up at RedefinED.

*****

UPDATE: Supplementing his opinion, the judge issued a 179-page Appendix for Findings of Fact which, among many other things, explains that Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program relies on private (not public) funding and explains that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate any injury resulting from the program:

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (the ―FTC Program‖) allows Florida taxpayers to apply for tax credits ―to make private, voluntary contributions‖ to fund scholarships for children attending eligible K–12 private schools.767 Plaintiffs allege that the FTC Program violates the uniformity and efficiency requirements of Article IX, Section 1(a) by diverting public funds to private schools that are not subject to the same requirements as schools within the State‘s system of free public schools.

The Court has previously found that the FTC Program, which allows third parties to obtain tax credits for making private donations, does not involve public funds, legislative appropriations, or the State‘s ―provision‖ for a ―system of free public schools‖ under Article IX. Because the private donations that fund the FTC Program are not legislative appropriations, the Court has previously determined that Plaintiffs lack taxpayer standing to assert a challenge to this program under Florida law.

Plaintiffs have also failed to prove any special injury that would allow them to challenge the FTC Program. […]

[A]ny connection between the FTC Program and appropriations to support Florida‘s system of free public schools—not to mention the overall quality of that system—is purely speculative. There was no persuasive evidence presented that the FTC Program has any direct or indirect impact on public-school funding or on the uniformity, efficiency, safety, security, or quality of Florida‘s public schools. […]

Even if tax credits resulted in a decrease in the number of students attending the public schools, local school districts are not responsible for educating students who attend private schools.

The appendix is also is chock-full of citations of some dude named Jay Greene. Here’s a taste:

3rd Grade Retention Policy

Florida‘s third-grade retention policy also is supported by academic research. Dr. Jay Greene, a professor of education and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, has extensively studied the effect of Florida‘s policy. Dr. Greene‘s studies, which are published in a peer-reviewed journal, concluded that Florida‘s test-based retention policy significantly improves the academic achievement of students who are retained.239 Plaintiffs did not present any evidence countering Dr. Greene‘s findings.

Resources & Results

Plaintiffs allege that the overall level of funding in Florida is not sufficient to provide a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of public education.784 Plaintiffs assert that the performance outcomes for certain groups of students indicate that school funding is insufficient.

Plaintiffs, however, have not met their burden of proving a causal relationship between the level of resources available to schools in Florida and student outcomes. Indeed, as described below, the weight of the evidence presented on that issue establishes a lack of any causal relationship between additional financial resources and improved student outcomes. […]

In addition to Dr. Hanushek, Defendants presented findings of Dr. Jay Greene, a professor of education and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Dr. Greene statistically analyzed school district-level variables throughout the state of Florida, including per-pupil spending, teacher characteristics, and discipline rates, and found no relationship between these variables and student outcomes.

Specifically, Dr. Greene examined school district per-pupil expenditures and percentages of students proficient on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (―FCAT‖)797 for grades 3 through 10 in reading and math; grades 5, 8, and 11 in science; as well as highschool graduation rates, for school years 2007–08 to 2012–13. The analysis revealed no connection between higher amounts of funding available in school districts and better student performance.

Dr. Greene also conducted regression analyses of spending and performance data, controlling for student demographic differences and prior levels of achievement across school districts. The demographic characteristics that were controlled included the proportion of minority students, proportion of students receiving free or reduced price lunch, the proportion of students classified as English language learners (―ELL‖), and the proportion of students with a disability who had an individual educational plan (―IEP‖), as well as academic outcomes in the prior year. The purpose of these analyses was to examine whether school districts would have better student outcomes if they had more resources, assuming school districts had the same demographic composition and prior year‘s academic outcomes. Dr. Greene‘s regression analyses revealed that there is no pattern between the level of spending in Florida school districts and student performance on the FCAT or high school graduation rates.

Teacher Experience

In addition, Dr. Greene evaluated the assertion by Plaintiffs that teacher qualifications and experience characteristics impact student performance, and that districts with high-minority and low-income student populations have a lower percentage of qualified, experienced teachers. Consistent with his other findings, Dr. Greene found no statistical relationship between the proportion of novice (first-year teachers) or ―highly qualified teachers, as defined by the Florida Department of Education, and student performance on the FCAT or high school graduation rates. Likewise, Dr. Greene found no statistical relationship between the percentage of minority and low-income students in a district and the proportion of novice or highly qualified teachers.

Suspension Rates

Dr. Greene also addressed Plaintiffs‘ assertion that high suspension rates are attributable to a lack of school district resources and lead to lower student performance outcomes. As above, Dr. Greene conducted regression analyses that controlled for student demographic characteristics and prior student outcomes. Dr. Greene found no relationship between the rate at which students are given out-of-school suspensions in Florida school districts and FCAT reading, math, or science proficiency, or graduation rates.

Court’s Conclusion re: the Evidence

The Court accepts Dr. Greene‘s conclusions and finds that they corroborate other evidence in the case showing the lack of causal relationship between the level of resources available in Florida schools and student outcomes, as well as evidence showing that the level of resources available is sufficient for a high quality system.

Although Plaintiffs bear the burden of proof in this case, neither Plaintiffs‘ expert witnesses nor their school-district witnesses presented analyses or studies rebutting the work of Drs. Hanushek and Greene. In fact, the weight of the evidence shows that despite budget cutbacks associated with the Great Recession, student performance continued to improve in the period 2007–08 to 2014–15.

 


Florida Lawmakers Expand Step Up for Students Tax Credit

March 10, 2012

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Florida looks to be the third state to expand private school choice in 2012 after Arizona and Virginia.

In terms of the original bet between Greg and Jay Mathews, I put the legislative chamber count at seven: two in Virginia, two in Florida and three in Arizona (two for the tax credit expansion, and the Arizona House has passed an expansion of the Education Savings Account program).

If Louisiana can pass Governor Jindal’s expansion of the New Orleans program to meh and below ranked schools statewide and the Arizona Senate passes the ESA bill (it passed out of committee last week in the Senate) then the ten chambers. If we are fortunate, some other states will help run up the score.

UPDATE: The Wisconsin Assembly has passed a voucher program for special needs students. That puts the chamber count at eight.


New Florida Study Makes It 18-0

June 3, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

David Figlio’s study (with Cassandra Hart) on how the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship program impacts public schools is finally out. Guess what? His detailed statistical analysis finds that competition from school choice improves public schools. (Here’s some local news coverage.)

But that was no surprise to anyone who’s been following the research. Early last year I counted up the studies and here’s what I got:

Removing the double-count for studies that had findings in multiple locations, that made it 16 studies finding school choice improves public schools to zero finding they hurt public schools. (The one null finding was in DC, where the program pays enormous cash bribes to the public system – apparently on the princple that children are the chattel property of the government school system – in order to deliberately neutralize its effect on public schools.)

After that, Jay came out with yet another study finding that Milwaukee vouchers have improved public schools. That brought it up to 17-0.

Now Figlio and Hart in Florida, adding the first study that looks at tax-credit scholarships rather than vouchers, have made it 18-0.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the Florida tax-credit program also dramatically improves education for the students who are using it.

As always, critics are trying to make hay out of the fact that in the Figlio/Hart study, a tiny, population-limited, regulation-cramped choice program produces only moderate-sized benefits. Well, geniuses, if the benefits of a tiny, population-limited, regulation-cramped program are too small for you, can you think of any way you might make the program’s impact bigger?


New Study on Florida Tax Credit Scholarships

August 6, 2009

FL survey table

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today the Friedman Foundation releases a new study I co-authored with Christian D’Andrea on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. You may recall that program as the subject of last month’s rush to judgment.

At the top of this post you can see what the parents participating in the program report about the services they previously received in public schools, and the services they are now receiving in the school choice program. The study conducted a survey of over 800 families randomly selected from the entire population participating in the program, excluding only those who had no prior public school experience (because their children entered the program in kindergarten).

The numbers tell the story. Public schools didn’t deliver for these kids, and school choice does – in spades.

Obviously this doesn’t answer all questions about the program. Indeed, as the first empirical study ever completed on a tax-credit scholarship program (that is, the first to empirically measure the outcomes of such a program measured against a relevant standard of comparison), it hardly could. We all look forward to the completion of the official evaluation when it’s ready. Until then, however, we have to take the information we have. And, if I do say so, I think this is some pretty important information.

Here’s the executive summary:

This study examines the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, one of the nation’s largest school choice programs. It is the first ever completed empirical evaluation of a tax-credit scholarship program, a type of program that creates school choice through the tax code. Earlier reports, including a recent one on the Florida program, have not drawn comparisons between the educational results of public schools and tax-credit scholarships; this study is therefore the first step in evaluating the performance of this type of school choice.

The Florida program provides a tax credit on corporate income taxes for donations to scholarship-funding organizations, which use the funding to provide K-12 private school scholarships to low-income students. Over 23,000 Florida students are attending private schools this year using these scholarships. Similar programs exist in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Studying a tax-credit scholarship program using traditional empirical techniques presents a number of methodological challenges. To overcome these difficulties, the study used a telephone survey conducted by Marketing Informatics to interview 808 participating parents whose children attended public schools before entering the program. It asked them to compare the educational services they received in public and private schools.

The results provide the first ever direct comparison between the education participants received when they were in Florida public schools and the education they receive in the school choice program.

Key findings include:

• Participating parents report that they receive dramatically better educational services from their current private schools than they previously received in public schools.

• 80 percent are “very satisfied” with the academic progress their children are making in their current private schools, compared to 4 percent in their previous public schools.

• 80 percent are “very satisfied” with the individual attention their children now receive, compared to 4 percent in public schools.

• 76 percent are “very satisfied” with the teacher quality in their current schools, compared to 7 percent in public schools.

• 76 percent are “very satisfied” with their schools’ responsiveness to their needs, compared to 4 percent in public schools.

• 62 percent are “very satisfied” with the student behavior in their current schools, compared to 3 percent in public schools.

• Most participating parents were dissatisfied with their public school experiences on most measurements, and are overwhelmingly satisfied with their current private schools.

• 58 percent had been “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the academic progress their children were making in public school, compared to 4 percent in their current private schools.

• 64 percent had been “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the individual attention their children received in public schools, compared to 3 percent in their current schools.

• 44 percent had been “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with teacher quality in public schools, compared to 3 percent in their current schools.

• 59 percent had been “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with school responsiveness in public schools, compared to 3 percent in their current schools.

• 62 percent had been “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with student behavior in public schools, compared with 5 percent in their current schools.

• Asked to rate their schools on a scale from one to „„ ten, 94 percent of participants gave their current private schools at least a seven, and 54 percent gave them a ten. Only 18 percent of parents rated their public schools seven or higher, and just 2 percent rated them at the highest level.

• Of the 128 parents whose children are not likely to be in the program again next year, 81 percent said that dissatisfaction with the program played no role at all in their decision, and 100 percent – all 128 of them – said the program should continue to be available for others even though they were not likely to use it again next year themselves.


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