Cherry picking, uneven playing fields and other myths about Florida’s ‘voucher’ program

Editor’s note: As debate over HB 859 – which affects Florida’s tax credit scholarship program – heads to a floor vote in the House of Representatives as early as today, it’s likely that its critics will offer some of the same curious arguments they have throughout the bill’s committee stops. Jon East, vice president for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students, which administers the scholarship program, put together the following point-by-point response in support of HB 859 and its Senate compansion SB 962. In some cases, the rebuttal follows a direct quote from a lawmaker. In others, it follows a paraphrasing of the lawmaker’s position.

Rep. Scott Randolph in the House Finance & Tax Committee on Jan. 26: How can you justify raising the cap again when it already is increasing by 25 percent?

First, it is important to remember that this is the only major learning option for which the Legislature imposes an explicit enrollment cap. So this question never comes up in other areas because there is no such cap on, for example, scholarships for disabled students, charter schools, magnet or choice schools. Second, interest for this option among low-income parents has exploded. The scholarship capped out at roughly 38,000 students this year and still had a waiting that at one point reached 13,000 students. We know from the research that the students who choose this option are struggling academically, so we should never want to shut the door on them.

Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed in the Education Committee on Feb. 27: How can we afford to raise the cap when we are struggling to meet other needs?

This is a help, not a hindrance, to the budget. These students will attend a traditional public school or a scholarship school next year, and if they attend the latter we know the cost is only 68 cents on the FEFP dollar. The House and Senate bills have been reviewed by the Revenue Estimating Conference, and it concluded on Jan. 13 that a cap increase of $31.25 million will produce a first-year savings of $7.6 million and a four-year savings of $33.9 million.

Rep. Randolph in F&T on Jan. 26: “I could run a successful school if I could cherry-pick my students.”

This claim is directly contradicted by the facts. For four straight years, the state has determined that the students who choose the scholarship are among the lowest performers from the public schools they leave behind – a trend the researcher said in August is “becoming stronger over time.” They are also poorer, with an average household income this year of only 12 percent above poverty.

Rep. Randolph in the Finance & Tax Committee on Jan. 26: “This program needs to be stopped dead in its tracks until everyone is willing to be held to the exact same standard when using public tax dollars.”

Sen. Montford in Education Pre-K-12 Committee on Jan. 9: “I’m a proponent of the same game, same rules, same playing field.”

This argument misses significant accountability that is written into the scholarship law and the inherent accountability that is added through the marketplaces, but one element seldom discussed by those who call for the “exact same” standards is cost. For 2009-10, the most recent year for which DOE has full financial data, scholarship schools received 40 cents on the public school tax dollar for educating these students. (That’s based on a maximum scholarship of $3,950 compared that year to a total public per-student investment, including capital costs, of $9,855.) To borrow from Sen. Montford, that’s a different playing field.

Rep. Geraldine Thompson in the Pre-K Appropriations Committee on Feb. 14: “You move students from the public sector to a voucher system and there is no empirical data that they do better in the voucher schools.”

In fact, the law requires scholarship students to take a nationally norm-referenced test approved by the state Department of Education, and the data is reported to the public every year. The latest report, issued in August, concluded that scholarship students scored marginally higher in reading and math than students on free or reduced-priced lunch in public schools and stated: “These differences, while not large in magnitude, are larger and more statistically significant than in the past year’s results, suggesting that successive cohorts of participating students may be gaining ground over time.” It is also important to remember that the state’s research shows that the students who choose the scholarship are the lowest performers from the public schools they leave behind.

Rep. Dwight Bullard in the Education Committee on Feb. 27: The two tests, FCAT and norm-referenced, are like comparing apples and oranges.

The state contracts with respected researcher David Figlio, who uses a standard statistical approach called a “concordance analysis” that allows for informed and detailed comparisons between two types of tests. It is also worth noting that up until 2008, public school students took the same Stanford Achievement norm-referenced test that most scholarship students currently take. In fact, Hillsborough County’s School Board decided last year to administer the Stanford in addition to the FCAT because the Stanford allows for national comparisons.

Rep. Bullard in the Education Committee on Feb. 27: His amendment allowing public schools to share in the tax credits would create “no net loss” to the scholarship program.

His claim would be true only if he raised the cap at the same time and made sure the scholarship program received the same portion of contributions in succeeding years.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.