Column: More choice is a plus for public education

Published March 29, 2019

If Florida lawmakers are trying to kill public schools by expanding school choice, they're failing miserably. Our public schools are better than ever.

Florida now ranks No. 1, No. 1, No. 3 and No. 8 on the core tests that make up the National Assessment of Educational Progress, once adjusted for demographics. Florida is now No. 3 in percentage of graduating seniors who've passed college-caliber Advanced Placement exams. Florida's graduation rate now stands at 86 percent, up from 52 percent 20 years ago. And Education Week now puts Florida No. 4 in K-12 achievement, the state's highest ranking ever.

Not bad. Yet in its March 24 editorial, the Tampa Bay Times says Florida public schools are "under performing." It says lawmakers want to "gradually starve them to death" by creating a new private school voucher. It calls this "unconstitutional, unaffordable and unfair." The Times offers a dozen reasons, but with all due respect, its list is heavy on myth and thin on fact.

Underlying its attack is the assertion that vouchers are a financial burden. And yet, Florida has been spending billions of dollars on private school tuition for years. For Bright Futures scholarships in higher ed. For Voluntary PreKindergarten. For McKay and Gardiner Scholarships for students with disabilities. All these programs allow students to attend private and faith-based schools at taxpayer expense. McKay alone costs $219 million this year, and for two decades it's been funded directly through the Florida Education Finance Program, just as the proposed new voucher would be. Does the Times consider these scholarships unconstitutional? If so, why has it never said a peep?

The proposed vouchers are aimed first at eliminating the wait list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, now at nearly 13,000 low-income students. As proposed, the new vouchers would be valued at roughly the same amount — which means they'd cost taxpayers a fraction of what they'd pay to educate the same student in a district school.

According to a new Florida TaxWatch report, the tax credit scholarship in 2017-18 was worth 59 percent of per-pupil spending in a district school. That far lesser amount — which the Times failed to note — is why every single independent fiscal impact study, eight to date, concludes the scholarship saves taxpayer money that can be reinvested in public schools. The Florida Supreme Court also weighed in two years ago, rejecting a constitutional challenge to the scholarships because the plaintiffs could not provide a lick of evidence to back their claims of financial harm.

To repeat, the scholarships save tax money. They do not "starve" public education.

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As for outcomes: A new Urban Institute report found Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students were up to 43 percent more likely to attend four-year colleges than like students in public schools, and up to 20 percent more likely to earn bachelor's degrees. The Times dismisses the benefit as "small" because it's an increase of 1 or 2 percentage points. But it's big percentage-wise because the rate of low-income students in public schools who persist to four-year degrees is so inexcusably low. The outcomes get better the longer the students use the scholarships. Those who use it four or more years are up to 45 percent more likely to earn four-year degrees. Is that still "small"?

The Times also pointed to a study that noted not-so-great test score gains in a few voucher programs, while ignoring the full body of research. The overwhelming majority of high-quality studies shows positive results for voucher students, not just with test scores, but with other desirables like tolerance and civic engagement.

Better outcomes at less cost. That's good, no?

The Times was right about one thing: There is a growing menu of district options. Many are excellent. But they didn't happen in a vacuum. When more parents got more power to access options beyond districts, districts responded by focusing more on the customization that ever more parents want. Students across sectors are benefitting, particularly those disadvantaged by poverty and disability.

Disappointingly, the Times would draw the line at too much choice for economically disadvantaged students.

Expanding options isn't unfair. But the evidence shows limiting them certainly would be.

Ron Matus is director of policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers four state-supported scholarship programs, and a former state education reporter at the Tampa Bay Times.