Editorial: Here's why Florida can't afford private school vouchers

Published March 22, 2019

Florida's public schools are under funded, under staffed and under performing. Yet the solution supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature is to gradually starve them to death. They want to directly spend tens of millions in public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition for thousands of additional kids. It's unconstitutional, unaffordable and unfair to the vast majority of Florida kids who would continue to attend public schools. Here are a dozen reasons why this is absolutely the wrong approach:

1. The Florida Constitution says, "Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education ...'' Using public education money to pay for private school tuition would violate that provision.

2. Don't take our word for it. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in Bush vs. Holmes in 2006 that a similar voucher program that directly used tax dollars and was pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and approved by the Legislature violated that provision. But Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed three new conservative justices, and the governor and Republican legislators expect the more conservative court to ignore precedent and uphold their voucher plan.

3. The Florida Constitution also says, "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.'' Using public education money to pay for private school tuition at churches and other faith-based institutions would violate that provision.

4. Parents in many communities already have plenty of school choices. Nearly 300,000 students attend more than 600 charter schools, which are public schools that are privately operated. More than 225,000 students attend choice or magnet schools in their district. About 160,000 students are in career and professional academies at more than 425 high schools.

5. There already are six different tax sources for contributions to the current Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for students from low-income families. That is money corporations voluntarily can contribute in lieu of paying those taxes: alcoholic beverage excise tax, corporate income tax, insurance premium tax, direct pay sales tax, oil and gas tax, and commercial lease tax.

6. Florida has the nation's fifth highest ratio of students per teacher, at nearly 20 to 1. Vermont is best at under 10 to 1.

7. Florida ranks 46th in average pay for teachers ($48,168 in 2017-18).

8. Florida ranks 41st in expenditures per student ($9,110 in 2017).

9. More than 2.8 million students attend Florida public schools. The 100,512 students who received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship this school year equal just a tiny fraction of that total, 3.6 percent.

10. 1,807 private schools already are getting money from Florida Tax Credit Scholarship vouchers this school year.

11. The income limit to qualify for tax-funded tuition vouchers in the Senate legislation is the same as it is now for those vouchers paid by corporate contributions, $66,950 for a family of four. But in the House legislation a family of four could earn up to $77,250 a year. By the 2021-22 school year, the income limit would rise to $90,125. That's creating a new entitlement that would benefit the majority of Florida families.

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12. Voucher advocates cite an updated study by the Urban Institute and its statistics showing voucher students are more likely to earn a college degree than similar students in public schools. But the difference is small; the study notes "average increases of 1 to 2 percentage points." Its earlier 2017 study had concluded that vouchers "had only a small effect on students' likelihood of earning a college degree." Meanwhile, a Brookings paper that looked at rigorous studies of four different voucher programs across the nation concluded that "on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools."

Sources: The Florida Constitution, the Florida Department of Education, National Education Association, the Urban Institute, FRED, the Brookings Institute, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, February 2019 Quarterly Report.