Money is fungible, not magical

Critics have spilled considerable ink attacking Florida’s proposed Family Empowerment Scholarship. The voucher would cost about $100 million and allow at least 15,000 low- and working-class students to attend private schools.

“I’m afraid it will do damage to the regular public schools in the state of Florida,” said Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee), who opposed “diverting” money in the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) from public schools to private schools.

“DeSantis private school voucher plan robs Florida public schools of needed money,” exclaimed the Palm Beach Post editorial board.

“The plan would divert money from public education in a state that already ranks a disgraceful 41st in the country in per-pupil funding and 46th in teacher salaries,” the Gainesville Sun editorial board wrote.

These critics seem to think the $100 million for the Family Empowerment Scholarship could be used to improve public education, increase per-pupil spending and raise teacher salaries all at the same time. But it’s not like the 15,000 kids who could have accessed the program are suddenly going to educate themselves.

Although $100 million would be removed from the total public school pot, 15,000 students – and many of the expenses that come with them – would go, too. And while the proposed program isn’t finalized, both the House and Senate versions set the voucher amount at a percentage of what the FEFP pays public schools.

One version even excludes more than $1.6 billion in the FEFP from being used to calculate that percentage. That’s $1.6 billion that can be spread among remaining public school students.

Additionally, the FEFP doesn’t cover the full cost of public education in Florida, as local and federal sources collect billions more. This is why the average scholarship from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program is worth just 59 percent of Florida’s per pupil expenses.

Every student who takes a scholarship not only removes expenses from public schools, but also creates a savings that can be spread to other students. That is why multiple studies have shown that scholarships save taxpayers money. It’s also part of the reason why the Florida Supreme Court tossed out a lawsuit claiming scholarships harmed public schools.

And it’s not like the FEFP is some sacrosanct source of public school funding, either.

Last year, the state “diverted” $221 million from the FEFP to fund 31,044 private school scholarships for children with special needs. No one batted an eye.

Even if the Legislature decided to appropriate $100 million from the General Fund to pay for the Family Empowerment Scholarship, as it does with the Gardiner Scholarship program, the FEFP would decline by around $100 million anyway. Why? Money is fungible.

The FEFP is mostly based on the number of students enrolled in public schools. If 15,000 low-income students leave public schools because they now have a scholarship to a private school, that is 15,000 fewer students to calculate a base student allocation and more. The FEFP would decline by about the same amount as the total voucher fund. Other pots of money still would be available for the remaining public school students.

Money is fungible, but it’s not magical. You can’t take a voucher worth a fraction of per-pupil spending and suddenly increase per-pupil spending in public schools, and increase teacher pay at the same time. Let’s stop pretending you can.