rebuttED: Tax credit scholarships (“vouchers”) don’t drain money from public schools

No matter how many times critics of parental choice say it, it’s still not true: Tax credit scholarships in Florida (aka vouchers) do not drain money from public schools.

The latest example: An op-ed in Sunday’s Ocala Star Banner by Andy Ford, president of the state teachers union. Ford (pictured below) focuses on the state of education funding in Florida, and much of what he argues is undeniable. These are tough times for schools. The money that Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature scraped together for education this year is still billions short of where the state was five years ago. I have one child in public school. In a few months, I’ll have two. I sympathize.

But then Ford redirects his financial argument toward tax-credit scholarships, suggesting they’re part of the reason why public schools are in dire straits. “There’s also money in the budget for expanding charter schools and increasing money for corporate voucher schools,” he writes. “Here’s another example of political leaders favoring unproven and less-accountable schools over our traditional neighborhood schools.”

He concludes: “At a time when the governor and lawmakers doled out more tax giveaways for corporations, more money for unaccountable voucher schools and more support and freedom for for-profit charter schools, our public schools are given a budget far from adequate and far from a true investment in our children.”

We’ll save the issue of accountability for another day, because it’s the pervasive myth of financial loss that resonates most with parents and voters. Despite what Ford says, one credible, independent report after another has found tax credit scholarships save taxpayer money. The Collins Center for Public Policy came to that conclusion, as did Florida Tax Watch, the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability and, just last month, an impact report from Florida’s Revenue Estimating Conference. The latter found the tax credit program will save taxpayers $57.9 million next year alone.

The bottom line is it costs the state less to fund a tax credit scholarship for a student than to educate that student in a public school. The value of a tax credit scholarship this year was $4,011. The operational cost for a student in public school was $6,255. It’s also worth repeating that the research shows the low-income students using the scholarships are often the ones who struggle the most in public schools. Given the financial disparity and the enormous task at hand, it seems silly to suggest that political leaders are favoring private schools over public.

The money-drain argument is also a distraction. I know plenty of teachers who deserve far more money. I’m aware of good programs that should be scaled up instead of pared down. I cringe at the thought of art and music classes being cut. But economic conditions and budgetary decisions are creating that pressure, not underprivileged children who receive 64 cents on the public school dollar.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director of Research & Special Projects at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times).