Research and advocacy organizations monitoring Florida’s expanded school voucher program have called on the state to release more information about the students receiving scholarships and what officials will do if demand exceeds the amount of money set aside.
More than 30 organizations, spearheaded by the Florida Policy Institute, have banded together in asking for more information from the Department of Education and Step Up For Students, the nonprofit entity that manages the scholarship program. They say it’s needed to properly evaluate the changes caused by a law passed this year that made state-funded private school vouchers of about $8,000 available to all school-age children, regardless of income.
“I can’t underscore enough the need for transparency,” Norín Dollard, senior policy analyst for the Florida Policy Institute, said at a news conference. The coalition of organizations that signed the letter to Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. includes Democratic clubs, the Florida PTA and eight chapters of the League of Women Voters.
Dollard said they want to know “who are the students” who are receiving scholarships. “What are their incomes, what are their demographic characteristics, what are their individual education plan designations so we can understand better the disabilities of those who are receiving those vouchers as well?”
They also want to know the number of new private schools that have applied to accept scholarships.
Dollard said the financial information currently provided is not clear enough to determine if the program is funded adequately.
At about $8,000 each, Dollard warned that the state might have to dip into a $350 million stabilization fund that was approved to avoid taking the money out of district public school budgets.
But the true cost is not yet known, she said, because some scholarships are awarded but not used.
The Department of Education issued a statement Wednesday saying that “The Florida Policy Institute’s concerns are unfounded” and that “their claim that the Department has not been transparent about the scholarship process is ridiculous.”
The education department said it published a news release on Aug. 18 celebrating the program’s record participation, with more than 407,000 scholarship recipients at the time.
“Feigning outrage that the specific data has not been made public less than month after school started is disingenuous,” communications director Cailey Myers wrote. “It takes time to process comprehensive reports, and our data will be available on our website when it is complete. ... We want families to be able to choose the best educational path for their children, and FPI should support Florida’s number one ranked education system instead of playing political games.”
The policy institute attracted attention early in the voucher debate when Dollard predicted the expansion would lead to a yearly cost of $4 billion. Since then, state leaders and Step Up have made the case that there is enough money allocated — including $2.8 billion in general revenue — to pay for the scholarships.
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Step Up continued on Wednesday to insist that the money is available, and said the state assumed there would be 355,000 participants in two key programs.
“Since the enrollments are currently trending below this line, it appears unlikely at this time that the state will need to dip into the extra funds set aside to support public and private school enrollments,” communications director Scott Kent said in an email.
He added that “Florida experts will not know the true costs of all Florida education programs until about October, when enrollment surveys are completed.”
Dollard contends the program might not be sustainable because some of the sources of funding are taxes and tax credits that could dry up in a slow economy. Her organization also noted that the $2.8 billion in state funding could have been spent to support district public schools.