Florida Committee Chairman Seeks to Expand Voucher Program

Published May 1, 2008

A Florida lawmaker says unmet student needs and a tight budget call for expansion of an established school choice program targeted at families in poverty.

State Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), chairman of the legislative committee overseeing K-12 education in the state, is sponsoring S. 1440, a bill that would allow for increased contributions to the state’s Corporate Tax Credit (CTC) scholarship program and raise the amounts of the individual vouchers.

“Families in my area [of northwest Florida], families from the town I live in, have persuaded me of the value of this program, and how it has remarkably improved their children’s academic lives,” said Gaetz.

The primary co-sponsor of S. 1440 is state Sen. Al Lawson (D-Tallahassee). At press time, the bill had cleared the first of three senate committees from which it needs support.

Demand Unfilled

Created by the Florida Legislature in 2001, CTC provides 20,000 low-income students up to $3,750 a year to defray private school tuition expenses. But the scholarship program currently limits credits for corporate contributions statewide to $88 million a year. Because of that, about $20 million in potential donations in 2007 could not be accepted.

“The amount of contributions that had to be turned down is a significant understatement of corporate contribution interest,” Gaetz said.

As a result of the cap, about 10,000 students who applied last year for CTC scholarships were turned away. Step Up for Students, a group that advocates for the program, has urged applicants who could not be served to contact their elected representatives about the need to raise the $88 million cap.

“Lawmakers already have received calls,” said Denise Lasher, Step Up for Students’ director of public affairs. “By the time this session is over, they will have heard from hundreds of parents in their districts.”

Raising the Cap

As introduced, S. 1440 would gradually raise the contribution cap to $238 million by 2012. The proposal also would increase the individual voucher amount by 20 percent, to $4,500 apiece. The average tuition of schools that participate in CTC currently is $4,400.

“It would enable parents in these poor families to keep children in schools that best serve their needs,” said Lasher. “It would be a godsend for those families who have to make up the difference in tuition.”

If S. 1440 passes, Step Up for Students could serve an additional 5,000 to 6,000 low-income students each year for the next five years, Lasher said.

Union Objections

The state’s teachers union believes the debate is focused entirely in the wrong direction, especially with a planned reduction of more than $300 million in annual K-12 education funding.

“In these difficult times, the question shouldn’t be about expanding the funding for this program,” said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association. “Why do we use taxpayer dollars to fund this program at all? Shouldn’t the state collect the taxes due from corporations and use that revenue to fund Florida’s public schools?”

Gaetz disagrees.

“The teachers union is ideologically opposed to this because they don’t like school choice,” Gaetz said. “But I’m not approaching this issue ideologically. I’m approaching it based on what’s best for kids, and based on what makes sense financially.”

Cost Savings

A 2007 report from the Tallahassee-based Leroy Collins Center for Public Policy concluded CTC saved Florida’s taxpayers nearly $140 million in public school costs between 2002 and 2004. The state’s public schools receive $7,200 in operating funds per pupil, considerably more than either the current or proposed scholarship amount.

“Obviously, there are fixed costs in public schools,” Gaetz said, noting the need for building maintenance, utilities, and transportation. “But most costs are incremental, growing with each student that has been added.”

Gaetz says increasing the number of CTC scholarship recipients would help alleviate some of the schools’ capital construction burden as well. Florida’s Class Size Reduction Amendment, passed in 2002, gradually reduces the number of students per teacher, requiring many school districts to build more classrooms for the same number of students.

Defining Accountability

Even so, Pudlow believes private institutions should not be able to receive publicly generated funds, even if families choose them.

“Why does Sen. Gaetz propose to give those scarce resources away to a private provider, with no demonstrable track record, that serves a small minority of the student population?” Pudlow asked.

Gaetz says the evidence is in parental demand.

“When thousands of low-income families and minority families vote with their feet and say their assessment of the quality and value of education is positive through this scholarship program, that’s the best proof,” Gaetz said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

Florida S. 1440: http://flsenate.gov