Bill to Expand Florida Choice Advances

Published March 17, 2014

A bill to expand one of the nation’s largest school choice programs heads is under consideration the Florida House after passing a committee March 6. If the measure becomes law, thousands more disadvantaged students will be able to receive tax-credit scholarships, and donors could use their donations to reduce the sales tax they owe.

“Parents should have the right to choose the best school meeting the needs of their child,” said Matthew Ladner, a researcher for the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, “whether that school is public or private. Florida lawmakers have successfully used the expansion of parental choice as one of the strategies for improving the public education system, but the scholarship program serving low-income children has tens of thousands of children on the waiting list.”

The program gives donors a tax credit for giving to nonprofits that offer K-12 scholarships to private schools. The choice program served 60,000 students in 2013-14; the speaker’s proposal would gradually expand it to 120,000, House Speaker Will Weatherford’s (R-Wesley Chapel) office said. Approximately 34,000 families were unable to get a scholarship this year because funds ran out.

The Senate version of the bill would require every scholarship student to take state tests instead of any nationally norm-referenced test, the current requirement.

Removing Barriers to Access
Families of children in the program must meet income requirements and live in poor-performing school districts. The bill would expand income eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Legislative proponents say they want to keep the program from becoming a barrier for parents who want to improve their finances. Once a child meets eligibility requirements, proponents say, they should not be kicked off the program and have to change schools just because their family income goes up, through marriage or employment changes, for example.

Saving Money
Some critics complain the program directs money away from public schools, but “in Florida’s case [scholarship students] are helping to relieve public school overcrowding,” said Ladner. “The Census Bureau projects over a million person increase in the school age population between 2010 and 2030, and currently there is nowhere to put that many students. Far from ‘draining money,’ the Florida Step Up for Students program gives parents options and helps keep more public school funding in the classroom.”

For the 2013-14 school year the scholarships averaged $4,880, which covers about two-thirds of the average participating school’s tuition and fees, and “there are several schools where that covers everything,” said Patrick Gibbons, spokesman for Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that manages the program.

Since the scholarships are much less than the average $8,700 the state spends to educate kids in public schools, in 2012-13 the program saved the state $58 million.

The bill would plug the program into the state’s largest source of revenue, its sales tax. It currently lets businesses deduct only from their corporate tax liability. Since every business is different, choosing which tax to use can help businesses continue to give, Gibbons said.

Image by Gage Skidmore.