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Florida tax credit scholarships offer good model for Texas school “vouchers”

No essay titled the “Voucher Rabbit Hole” needs to be treated as though it were a search for academic truths, but Grand Prairie educator Jerry Burkett would better contribute to the current debate in Texas if he weren’t so fixated on Georgia.

To be sure, Georgia’s tax credit scholarship has been insufficiently accountable to taxpayers and has invited some abuses the Legislature took an important step toward fixing last week. But we should no more judge the fitness of all private scholarships based on the law in Georgia than we would judge the integrity of all public schools based on the cheating scandal in Atlanta.

In the same 2011 Southern Education Foundation report from which Dr. Burkett quoted so extensively, the foundation contrasted the practices it criticized in Georgia with a program directly to the south.

“The neighboring state of Florida,” the foundation wrote, “offers an example of a tax‐credit educational program that has evolved and improved over the last few years. As a public‐private venture, it has begun to require more effective measures for public accountability and educational performance from all entities and all private schools that take tax‐diverted funds to support student learning.”

Florida is now serving 51,000 low-income students with the largest tax credit scholarship program in the nation and, more importantly, offers an extensive public record on educational and financial impact as it completes its 11th year. Since I work for the nonprofit that oversees the scholarship and since Dr. Burkett mostly neglected it, let me offer some independent findings that could ease his fear of falling. (In Florida, we fear sinkholes instead of rabbit holes.)

First, we know the students who seek the scholarship are among the poorest and lowest-performing students in the state. The Florida law restricts the scholarship to students whose household income qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunch, which is 185 percent of poverty, and the average this year is only 6 percent above poverty. We also know through five years of state-contracted research that the students who choose the scholarship are the lowest performers from the public schools they leave behind.

Second, we know these same students are performing well on nationally norm-referenced tests. In the most recent report, scholarship students achieved the same academic gains in reading and math as students of all income levels nationally.

Third, we know from 2010 academic research by respected Northwestern University professor David Figlio that the public schools most impacted by the scholarship program are in fact making academic gains themselves.

Fourth, we know from seven different evaluations from five different independent government and nonprofit groups that the scholarship saves tax money that can be used to enhance traditional public schools. The most recent report was from the nonpartisan state Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference in March 2012, projecting a savings of $57.9 million this fiscal year.

These Florida findings should not be interpreted as proving that all vouchers or tax credit scholarships can benefit students and save money for public schools, because each program must be examined on its own merits and by its own design. A good Texas law, for example, should provide for standardized testing and public reporting of the results, as well as some method to assure that private schools receiving large amounts of scholarship money are reporting on how they spend it.

Parents are increasingly demanding learning options that best match the needs of their own children, and these options, whether public or private, should be designed to help students succeed. But when Dr. Burkett dismisses vouchers and scholarships with words like “boondoggle” and “ill-conceived” and “manipulation,” it tells parents he has no interest in trying.

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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.