Speakers Dr. Deanna Albert, Scott Hottenstein and Stephanie Vanos
By Paul Blythe
This spring, Florida’s Republican-controlled government overhauled and expanded the state’s school voucher program so that it will soon be able to give an $8,500-a-year voucher to any K-12 student in the state who wants one to help pay for private school or home schooling.
The key thing to know about that, as The Palm Beach Post pointed out in an editorial Saturday, is: “The Legislature approved the measure – 83 to 27 in the House and 26 to 12 in the Senate – without giving much thought to costs or impact on Florida public schools.”
We at the North County Democratic Club sponsored a forum last week where we and about 50 guests learned just how little Florida’s Republican lawmakers knew, or at least cared, about how much the expansion of private school vouchers would cost and hurt public school students and families in Florida.
During the presentation Thursday by Scott Hottenstein and Stephanie Vanos, president and vice president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida, and Dr. Deanna Albert, a member of the caucus’ Legislative Committee, we learned that the new law passed by Republicans removes previous limits on who and how many private school students can get vouchers, allowing essentially any Florida household with a student in elementary, middle or high school to receive a school voucher containing the same amount of money their local public school would have received if they had attended.
Vouchers for homeschoolers
The voucher can be used to pay for private school tuition or, for the first time, homeschooling resources -- if the homeschooling parents agree to abide by state guidelines.
The new law (HB 1) also creates "education savings accounts," which is where the voucher money is to be kept if a student is enrolled in a private school, religious school or approved homeschooling nonprofit program but the family does not need the money at the time it is received.
Up to $24,000 can be saved in this account until it expires when a student turns 21, receives a high school diploma, or attends a public school, WUSF Public Media has reported.
The new law allows the voucher money in these accounts to be spent on other approved, school-related expenses such as enrollment in college as a part of a dual-enrollment program, fees for standardized tests and other testing, individual classes at a public school, tutoring, and instructional digital materials and internet resources.
Public school students, however, will not receive this so-called scholarship money, as it is the same amount that is allotted to public schools per student and some of the allowable expenses, such as enrollment in dual-enrollment classes, are already paid for by the state for public school students.
A stipend of $8,500 a year per child may sound enticing, but not all private schools are equal and even the best are not the bargain that public schools are for students, parents, neighborhoods and democracy, Albert said.
Unlike public schools, private schools are not required by the state to have certified professional teachers; academic achievement assessed through state tests; all students accepted regardless of special needs; full offerings of art, music and physical education; neighborhood locations; buildings that meet safety standards; and transportation provided to and from schools, a League of Women Voters of Florida flier points out.
Public education essential
Moreover, Albert said, our nation’s forefathers wrote that public education is the key to developing an informed citizenry that is so necessary to preserving a democracy.
Florida’s constitution goes even further, with Article 9 – the “Education” Article – stating “a paramount duty of the state (is) to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders” and requiring that “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.”
Indeed, the great majority of Florida’s K-12 students – 87 percent – are educated in public schools. But the state's 13 percent private school attendance in 2021-22 exceeded the national average and was up from 10.6 percent in Florida a decade earlier.
Could it be because Florida’s spending on public education continues to lag behind other states – it ranked 44th among the 50 states in per-pupil public school spending in 2023, according to worldpopulationreview.com – as the Republican lawmakers who have controlled Florida government for the past two decades have worked so hard to promote private school vouchers and charter schools as school choice.
Illusion of choice
Choice, of course, always sounds like a good thing. But is it?
Especially since Florida’s universal vouchers, Hottenstein said, provide only the “illusion of choice.”
For example, just because the state provides vouchers for students to attend private schools doesn’t mean private schools have to admit voucher students. Tuition for the best private schools is often beyond the reach of low and middle income families even when they have vouchers, and many high-quality private schools do not accept government-funded vouchers.
Let's look at Palm Beach County's 137 private schools, which serve 29,302 students and have annual tuitions ranging from $9,075 to $37,000.
Of the 137, only 111 accept vouchers, Hottenstein said. Of those 111, 56 percent are unaccredited, 47 percent are faith-based and 32 percent are explicitly in it for the money, he said, noting that they are for-profit businesses. Only 5 are non-profit and non-religious.
Yet, Florida’s private school attendance has grown since Republicans began diverting more and more tax dollars from public to private education in 1999, essentially creating two parallel school systems by using vouchers as a government subsidy for their constituents: private schools, religious schools, homeschool organizations – and the organizations that make money from their oversight of Florida’s voucher programs.
The money allocated by Florida for vouchers doesn’t all go to private schools. Since the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship was created in 2001, the state has outsourced its administration of voucher programs to non-profits called scholarship funding organizations. Under state law, these SFOs are allowed to keep up to 3 percent of all voucher dollars for administrative costs.
Scholarship Funding Organizations
According to the Florida Department of Education, two scholarship funding organizations – Step Up for Students and A.A.A. Scholarship Foundation-FL -- were approved to administer all of Florida’s voucher programs in 2022-2023.
According to a League of Women Voters of Florida report issued in March 2021, Step Up administered 99% of the contributions that corporations made to Florida’s tax credit voucher program and took an administration fee of 2.5 percent to 3 percent of the contributions. Corporations receive a dollar-for-dollar credit against Florida taxes they owe for contributions they make to the tax-credit vouchers program.
The cap on corporate contributions in 2020 was $874 million, which means a 2.5% fee would have paid Step Up nearly $21 million for in 2020, the LWV report says.
Most of that went to an $18 million payroll for Step Up’s 265 employees tasked with tracking individual vouchers giving to parents for more than 1,800 private schools in Florida, according to the LWV report. This includes verifying that a student actually is enrolled when a school reports a voucher for that student. And in the past Step Up had to make sure families who were awarded vouchers met the income requirements.
But even an $18 million payroll would leave $3 million for the non-profit to use to promote Florida’s tax credit voucher program to corporations, car dealers and other businesses eligible for the tax credit, as well as to market it to parents, the LWV report says. Step Up offers webinars and support systems to recruit parents and assist them in applying for scholarships. Through the years, Step Up also has organized large rallies in Tallahassee to bring thousands of students and parents to Tallahassee to lobby legislators to expand the program.
That expansion of vouchers in general is what hurts, even threatens, Florida public schools, the NCDC's three speakers said. Money going to Florida Tax Credit Scholarships – Florida’s largest voucher program until the past year – is money that would have gone to Florida’s tax coffers if Florida hadn’t agreed to sacrifice it to the tax credit voucher program in 2001, but it is not necessarily money that would have been earmarked for public education.
And money allocated to Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarships, now the state’s largest voucher program, is money diverted directly from the public schools budget to private schools. The administration of the Family Empowerment vouchers also is outsourced by the state government to the SFOs, meaning organizations like Step Up also collect a portion of these tax funds.
So, the Legislature’s move this year to eliminate the voucher program’s enrollment and household income caps is expected to really hurt the public school system’s finances.
But exactly how much the voucher expansion would cost public schools appeared to be anybody’s guess. No one knows how many students are going to switch from public to private schools, or even how many private school students will apply for vouchers.
The House budget proposal estimated the voucher expansion would cost $209.6 million a year while the Senate’s estimate started at $646 million and rose to $2.2 billion by the 2023 legislative session’s end. Both chamber’s estimates were in addition to the $1.4 billion in education funding or lost tax income that pays for the more than 200,000 private school students who use Florida Family Empowerment or Florida Tax Credit vouchers now.
Then there is the Florida Policy Institute’s estimate that the expansion will cost the state nearly $3 billion more in 2023-2024 than what it spends on vouchers now.
Norin Dollard, senior policy analyst at the Florida Policy Institute, told the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on education, in April that in just the past three years of DeSantis’ tenure, the percentage of state-formula funding redirected from public to private education has risen from 3 percent to 10 percent. Next year, she said, that could reach 30 percent, or $4 billion.
“I don’t think I am being overly dramatic in saying it will fundamentally change public schools to have such a huge amount of funds diverted to private schools,” Dollard said of the new voucher law’s potential impact.
The institute’s estimate was based on calculations of $1.9 billion for 219,017 students already in private schools but currently not eligible for vouchers either because their family income exceeded the program’s income cap or because they never previously attended public schools; $890 million for 104,477 public school students the institute forecasts will switch to private schools once the income cap is eliminated; and $85 million for 10,000 home-school students that the institute estimated would be eligible for vouchers.
The new law actually allows up to 20,000 home-school students to get vouchers in 2023-2024 and up to 40,000 each subsequent year. So, the Florida Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research and policy organization, may have even been low-balling it.
What did the Legislature do?
And how much extra did the Legislature finally budget for the extra vouchers?
Well, it did pass a record $26.7 billion education budget for 2023-24, which is $2.2 billion more for education than the Legislature budgeted for this school year.
But that $2.2 billion extra is not for voucher expansion alone. About $252 million of it, for example, is designated for pay raises for teachers, according to the News Service of Florida.
Keep in mind that the education budget funds the state’s charter schools as well as traditional public schools and, now, vouchers for any private school student or homeschooler who can use them.
Only $350 million was set aside in the schools budget to help hedge against unanticipated expenses from the expansion of vouchers, the News Service of Florida story said.
Dr. Deanna Albert is CEO of Educational Solutions & Resources, a Wellington-based consulting firm on educational issues and recently joined the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida Legislative Committee after serving as chair of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party Education Committee for four years.
Stephanie Vanos and Scott Hottenstein are the founding officers of Help Out Public Education (HOPE), a non-partisan political committee focused on supporting pro-public education school board candidates and campaigns in Florida. Go to www.hope4fl.org