There is no satisfying Republican legislators who seem determined to gut Florida’s public schools, hand every kid a check and let them choose their public or private school. House Speaker Richard Corcoran already is pushing hard to hand tuition vouchers to kids who claim they have been bullied, but even that isn’t enough. Now legislative leaders are eyeing the state sales tax as another way to help pay for private school tuition, which would set a dangerous precedent for both education and tax policy.
With one week left in the legislative session, the House today is poised to take up legislation that for the first time would steer money that should be paid in sales taxes to programs that help cover private school tuition for low-income students or students with disabilities. That bill, HB 7087, would steal up to $154 million in public money that could be spent on priorities such as public schools and social services and divert it to sales tax credits to cover business-funded scholarships. It’s unaffordable and unacceptable for a state with so many other priorities, and the Senate should refuse to go along.
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low-income students has exploded since its modest inception and already taps five different tax sources, including taxes on alcoholic beverages and the corporate income tax. What began as a $50 million program under Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001 could cost the state up to $698 million this year in lost revenue. Corporations have voluntarily converted what should have been tax revenue into tax credits and used the money to contribute to the scholarship program.
The scholarship programs are in no danger of starving. The voucher program that helped cover private school tuition for less than 35,000 low-income students in 2010-11 now covers more than 106,000 students. State law even allows the spending cap to increase by 25 percent whenever the program spends at least 90 percent of its allocation. So for 2018-19, the maximum amount of money could balloon to $873 million. Imagine if lawmakers automatically increased per student spending on public schools by 25 percent a year or even half that much.
Yet it’s still not enough. Now the House wants to tap the sales tax for the first time to pay for tuition vouchers for private schools. It’s bad enough that what should be public tax money is being diverted to religious schools that have come to rely on the cash flow, but this is a cleverly designed system designed to circumvent the Florida Constitution. It’s even worse to now try to tap into the state’s primary source of revenue for general government costs, a sales tax that already is woefully insufficient and too susceptible to fluctuations tied to the economy.
Imagine the next time you buy a hammer and the hardware store diverts the sales tax to help pay for private tuition at a religious school. What’s next? Allowing businesses to earmark their sales tax collections to pay for job incentives but not Medicaid? To pay for children’s programs but not prisons? State government cannot become a cafeteria where taxpayers can decide they want to pay for desert but not for vegetables.
Hundreds of millions in what should be state tax money already are diverted to pay for tuition vouchers for private schools that are not required to meet the same performance standards as public schools. The last thing a low-tax state such as Florida with so many unmet needs should do is steer millions more from its primary source of revenue — the state sales tax — to private schools.