When it comes to selling Floridians on the need for an expanded school voucher program, it seems honesty is not the best policy.
Sunshine State lawmakers are trying to grow the Tax Credit Scholarship Program (TCSP), a form of neo-voucher that offers tax credits for contributions made to so-called “scholarship” organizations. This scheme costs the state tax revenue and funnels public money to private institutions, including religious schools.
The program started in 2001 with $47 million. By fiscal 2012-2013 it was capped at $229 million and it increased to $286 million for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. The Miami Herald reported that about 60,000 students receive “scholarships” now, and 80 percent of them use that money for tuition at religious schools.
But even this massive growth in spending that’s already under way isn’t enough to satisfy some lawmakers. State Sen. Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) sponsored a bill that would have raised the TCSP cap to nearly $1 billion within just a few years, but he later withdrew it amid reports that the program was too light on accountability. The main problem cited was that voucher students would not have to take the standardized tests that are mandatory for public school students, The Washington Post said.
While that issue may have been the stated reason for Galvano’s capitulation on his bill, other reports later surfaced that showed voucher proponents had falsified the demand for vouchers in the state. State Rep. Erik Fresen (R-Miami), who is continuing to fight for an expanded voucher system, said during a recent hearing that there are 100,000 students on a waitlist to receive vouchers from the state, The Post said. During that same hearing, others threw around varying figures for this fictional waitlist, including 34,000.
Fortunately, some activists and reporters got curious about these large numbers being tossed around and started asking questions. Eventually, a Tampa-based organization that provides TCSP “scholarships” called Step Up for Students admitted that there is no such waitlist.
In a blog post on redefinED, which is run by Step Up for Students, the organization said the claims about the waitlist were partly the result of anecdotes.
“The people who process applications at Step Up, which publishes this blog, have become so overwhelmed in recent years that they no longer wanted to give low-income families false hope,” reads the blog.
The blog post also noted that the waitlist was concocted “mostly for show,” and that Step Up for Students didn’t feel comfortable perpetuating a falsehood.
That’s nice. But the problem is, lawmakers still used that non-existent list to make the case for expanding vouchers.
So where did these numbers come from? Call it “fuzzy math.” Step Up maintains that by the June 28 deadline for applications, 94,104 students had already begun an application. In total Step Up gave out almost 60,000 scholarships, so that is the origin of the 34,000 “waitlist” number.
Of course, that ignores the fact that not every student who started an application actually would have qualified for a “scholarship,” or even decided to take one if it were offered.
And it goes without saying that just because there was some demand for the program doesn’t automatically mean that this voucher plan is good public policy.
Unfortunately that mini-scandal hasn’t been enough to sink the voucher issue in Florida. Fresen is backing a voucher expansion bill in the Florida House of Representatives that would increase the income cutoff for voucher students. Currently, no student with an annual household income of more than $43,568 (for a family of four) can receive a “scholarship” from the tax credit program. Fresen’s scheme would increase that income limit to $62,010. It would also increase the cap on the TCSP by $30 million for the next five years.
Democrats have expressed opposition to this plan – and with good reason.
“The core mission was to provide these corporate tax scholarships for low-income families,” said Rep. Dwayne Taylor (Daytona Beach), according to FlaglerLive. “It’s now deviated from that to families who are able to pay for their private educations.”
This whole affair shows once again that voucher advocates in state legislatures will twist the facts to push their agenda because they know that telling the truth won’t work. Vouchers in all their forms are nothing but bad educational policy that siphons money away from public coffers and hands it over to religious schools.
Hopefully there has been enough bad publicity to prevent voucher expansion for 2014, but Sunshine State lawmakers are strongly committed to “school choice” for the long haul. This is most definitely an ongoing problem.