Florida's highly politicized experiment with private school vouchers has always been couched as an effort to give poor children a better educational option. For its supporters, that goal trumped all other concerns, including diverting tax money from public schools, failing to properly regulate private schools receiving student vouchers and the flouting of the Florida Constitution.
Now a new study by a Northwestern University economics professor suggests vouchers don't deliver on that primary objective. Without evidence that vouchers give poor children a better education, there is no reason to continue this experiment. Vouchers do not appear to be providing a better education. They are stripping resources from public schools, and they violate the state Constitution.
Northwestern professor David Figlio found students in the Corporate Tax Credit voucher program performed no better or worse academically than voucher-eligible students who chose to stay in public school. He qualified his results because they were based on only one year of comparable data. But he predicted it would be "highly unlikely" that there will be a huge positive differential in coming years.
Figlio's study wasn't possible until recently. Only starting in 2006 did voucher recipients have to submit to a standardized test. Now that the data are available, voucher proponents are relying on another pitch beyond a better education. They claim Figlio's study demonstrates private schools can provide an equivalent education to poor children for less money. The voucher costs taxpayers $3,950 while public school per-pupil spending is $7,000. But that argument ignores the children who lose due to the voucher program siphoning money away from their public schools.
There also are lingering legal questions, including the fact that most voucher recipients attend religious schools despite a provision in the state Constitution barring state money from going to religious institutions. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court cited another provision in the Constitution to invalidate a voucher program for children attending F schools, saying it was unconstitutional to use tax dollars to support private schools. The same flaws are evident in the remaining two programs: the Corporate Tax Credit voucher and the McKay Scholarships for disabled students.
Yet last month, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a law making it easier to funnel would-be tax dollars to vouchers. Now, companies can get dollar-for-dollar tax credits toward both corporate income taxes and insurance premium taxes when they make contributions to voucher programs. In a state struggling to keep public school teachers employed, that makes little sense.