New Florida Governor Proposes Big Voucher Expansion

Published January 11, 2011

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) says the state should expand its trailblazing school choice programs to cover all children in the Sunshine State, not just low-income and disabled students.

Scott, who took office Jan. 4, surprised Florida’s education establishment in December when he told 900 voucher recipients at a St. Petersburg rally he wanted to “give every child the opportunity you’ve had, to make sure that you go to whatever school you want to.”

Scott’s proposal would allow public education dollars to follow students to public, private, or virtual schools of their parents’ choosing.

“This is a K-20 plan, not just a K-12 one,” said Jaryn Emhof, press secretary for the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a think tank founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) to defend and promote the education reforms enacted during his two terms in office from 1999 through 2007.

Several Options Proposed

Scott’s plan, which the foundation helped develop, would allow students taking college courses while enrolled in a public high school to use education savings accounts for textbooks or computers. Accounts also could be used to pay private virtual-school tuition or full-time tutoring for home-schooled students. The money also could be invested in 529 and prepaid college plans.

Students currently receiving McKay Scholarships (for disabilities and special needs) or Florida Tax Credit scholarships (for low-income families) could request access to the “balance” of the scholarship amounts they already receive. 

State law limits Florida Tax Credit Scholarships to a maximum of $3,950 each year. A majority of students in the program are blacks or Hispanics who come from single-parent homes with average household incomes of $25,400.

Avoids Legal Pitfalls
Emhof says Florida reformers are confident Scott’s idea would survive legal scrutiny. Florida’s Supreme Court in 2006 ruled the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program violated the state constitution’s requirement of uniformity in educational opportunity. Under the old law, students in failing schools could transfer to higher-performing public schools or use public funds to attend private schools.

Although reformers applauded Scott’s proposal, Florida’s press panned Scott’s speech. A St. Petersburg Times editorial called Scott’s education savings accounts plan a “fatally flawed idea,” claiming it would violate the state constitution’s uniformity clause, would “not leave enough money for public education,” and could not deliver better academic results.

Studies of Florida’s McKay and Tax Credit Scholarships have consistently shown, however, the state’s school choice programs have helped cash-strapped public school districts by allowing scholarship-transfer students to access 85 percent—around $5,500—of the amount that would have gone to their assigned school. The state thus saved $38.9 million through its tax credit scholarship program for poor students during the 2007-08 school year, according to Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

Academic Gains
Despite newspaper claims Bush-era reforms “overreached and underdelivered,” credible data suggests the Sunshine State’s choice programs spur academic improvement, especially among disadvantaged children.

The National Assessment for Educational Progress reports Florida’s fourth-grade Hispanic students now read as well as or better than average students (including whites) in 31 states and the District of Columbia.

Overall, student achievement in Florida has improved “across the board in the last 10 years,” Emhof said. She noted a 200 percent increase in the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement courses in the past decade.

“We went from being literally near the bottom to now a national model that resists the claims ‘it can’t be done,'” she said. “A big reason for this is a strong belief that all kids can learn regardless of their background, their language, or their parents’ salaries.”

Emhof said there were other factual inaccuracies in the Times editorial, noting the editors used misleading data about the academic results of current scholarship programs. She also said Scott’s program, if passed, would not benefit students already enrolled in private schools, contrary to opponents’ claims.

‘Too Many Barriers’

Parents who struggle to pay the portion of their children’s private-school tuition not currently covered by scholarships would benefit greatly from Scott’s plan, one prominent parent activist says.
“I’m really excited to see that he [wants] to empower parents to make the best education choices for their children,” Wendy Howard told reporters after attending an event where Scott talked about his plan. Howard, who chairs the Florida chapter of the National Coalition for Public School Options, blasted the state for what she called “too many barriers to access and lack of options for families.” Howard’s daughter, Jessica, takes fourth-grade classes online at home.

Currently a very small percentage of Florida’s 2.7 million students opt out of the traditional public school system. Just 33,000 students receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Emhof says it’s important for parents to have options, even if they don’t always take advantage of them.
“The point isn’t to create a private school system that functions in lieu of a public school system,” Emhof said. “But children are not [products of] cookie cutters. If the public education system is not providing them with the skill set they need, then they should have access to a private education that provides them with what they need.”

‘Rewards and Consequences Work’
Former Gov. Bush weighed in on the reform question in a Wall Street Journal commentary the day before Scott took office. Bush urged policymakers to build on Florida’s successes.

“Rewards and consequences work,” Bush wrote. “If a public school doesn’t measure up, families have an unprecedented array of … options: public school choice, charter schools, vouchers for pre-K students, virtual schools, tax-credit scholarships, and vouchers for students with disabilities.”

“Choice is the catalytic converter here, accelerating the benefits of other education reforms,” Bush concluded.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is vice president of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.