1. Opinion

Column: Tax-credit voucher scheme diverts needed money from public schools

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Published Jan. 29, 2015

Faced with an ever-expanding tax-credit voucher program, the Florida Education Association, along with the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida PTA, the Florida Association of School Administrators and other groups and individuals, filed a lawsuit last year seeking to declare the program unconstitutional.

In recent years, legislators have cut funding for public schools — though Gov. Rick Scott's budget released this week proposes an increase — while at the same time shifting hundreds of millions of dollars into programs that serve students in private schools that have little or no accountability or consequences for poor performance.

These private schools use public tax dollars and are not held to the same standards as public schools, nor are they held accountable to taxpayers for what they teach and how they teach it.

This isn't our first experience with going to court over vouchers. After the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program was enacted early in Gov. Jeb Bush's administration, we went to court.

In the 2006 Bush vs. Holmes case, Florida courts used two different reasons for declaring the Opportunity Scholarship vouchers unconstitutional. The 1st District Court of Appeal said the vouchers violated the "no aid" clause in Article I, Section 3, of the state Constitution, which prohibits taking revenue "from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution." The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the program was "in direct conflict with the mandate in Article IX, Section 1(a) that it is the state's 'paramount duty' to make adequate provision for education and that the manner in which this mandate must be carried out is 'by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.' "

Like the Opportunity Scholarship vouchers, the state provides tax-credit vouchers for students to attend private schools at public expense. Proponents say that because tax-credit vouchers are funded by revenue that bypasses the state treasury, the program is different than the voucher program already declared unconstitutional by the courts.

That's wishful thinking. Here's how it works. A corporation's tax liability is determined. Then, instead of paying the amount that is due to the Department of Revenue, the tax money owed may be detoured to a so-called "scholarship funding organization," which pays it to the private and religious schools.

Since public education funding is based on per-student funding, the appropriation to public schools paid by the Department of Revenue to the school district is reduced by the same dollar amount that is paid to the scholarship funding organization. The scholarship funding organization keeps 3 percent of the money and pays the balance to private and religious schools.

In this manner, last school year, public schools lost $286.25 million in taxes that were due to the state, which were paid instead to private and religious schools through this diversionary scheme.

Don't be confused. This tax credit isn't like taking a charitable deduction for making a charitable contribution. Under the Tax Credit Scholarship program, the state totally regulates how the credits may be taken, used and the cost recovered by the state. The only choice given to a corporation is whether to pay its taxes or, instead, funnel them to private and religious schools. The money that the Department of Revenue loses from the diverted taxes is recovered from the appropriations made to public schools on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

The Bush vs. Holmes case made plain that allowing a student to leave public school and take the money with him or her to private and religious schools directly, violates the Constitution. Laundering the state taxes through an intermediary scholarship funding organization does not change the character of the funds — they are still state revenues that had been appropriated to, but as a result of this program, are lost by public schools.

Our public schools are woefully underfunded — we're near the bottom when compared to other states. This tax-credit voucher scheme makes a bad situation much worse. Florida's taxpayers and students would be better served by investing to improve our local public schools and helping all of the students who attend them.

Joanne McCall is the vice president of the Florida Education Association. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.