Teachers union ‘analysis’ of Florida’s new voucher undeserving of media coverage

The Florida Education Association, which is virulently opposed to private school vouchers, has released a perfectly predictable fiscal impact “analysis” of the new Family Empowerment Scholarship. Less foreseeable was the bounty of uncritical coverage it received from news media.

From last Thursday through Monday, at least 10 media outlets covered this “analysis” (examples here, here and here) and another, the Miami Herald, mentioned it in a related story. FEA “researchers” concluded the scholarship will “divert”/”drain”/”draw” about $1 billion from school districts over the next five years.

They reached this conclusion by adding up the projected cost of the new vouchers without considering the savings to districts that are a given because: 1) districts will have tens of thousands fewer students to educate, and 2) the cost of the voucher is far less than the full per-pupil cost in district schools.

This wasn’t analysis. This was propaganda. Yet 10 media outlets thought it worthy of a story, an 11th thought it worthy of mention, and only one bothered to offer a contrasting voice – a private school principal who had probably never delved into the issue.

The report and the coverage ignored 18 years of financial data to the contrary from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, on which the new scholarship is modeled. Since the tax credit scholarship’s creation, there have been eight fiscal impact analyses. Two were done by OPPAGA, the Legislature’s respected research arm (in 2008 and 2010). Two were done by the now-defunct, center-left Leroy Collins Center for Public Policy (2002 and 2007). One each was done by Florida Tax Watch (2003); the Revenue Estimating Conference (2012); the Florida House Education Committee staff (2014); and the advocacy group EdChoice (2016).

Every single report concluded the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship saves taxpayer money that can be re-invested in traditional public schools. Arguably the most rigorous of these analyses, by OPPAGA in 2008, erred on the side of caution. It still determined taxpayers saved $1.49 for every $1 that corporations contributed to scholarships in return for tax credits.

All these analyses found the same thing because the amount of the scholarship is so much less than average per-pupil spending in district schools – a fact rarely, if ever, reported in coverage of scholarship programs. In a report released in March, Florida Tax Watch determined the scholarship in 2017-18 was worth 59 percent of all-in per-pupil spending for district schools, which Florida Tax Watch pegged at $10,856. Keep in mind the value of the scholarship has grown in recent years, and so was worth even less in past years relative to the district per-pupil figure.

It will cost the state about $130 million to award Family Empowerment Scholarships to 18,000 students so they can attend private school this fall. Adding in the basic per-pupil funding increases over the last two years to the Florida Tax Watch figure from 2017-18, it would cost the state about $200 million to educate the same students next year in district schools.

I’d think any fair-minded reporter would find this evidence worth noting in any story where choice critics make the drain claim. Over the past few years, there have been scores of such stories.

But in the seven years since I left The Tampa Bay Times to work for Step Up For Students, exactly one reporter, at one small paper, has mentioned the existence of these multiple analyses. One. This, even though we’ve communicated their existence to scores of reporters, including some who wrote the recent pieces on the FEA’s new “analysis.”

I don’t want to be harsh. I was a reporter my entire adult life before joining Step Up. But I can’t think of a good reason for this disconnect. It may be true that some if not most reporters writing about the FEA “analysis” knew nothing about the other reports; the turnover rate for local education reporters is crazy bad. But how to explain why none of them sought a response from an authoritative source?

Here’s another reason for frustration: Given its track record, any apocalyptic claims of fiscal calamity by the FEA should be met with skepticism. Remember, the FEA was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that sought to kill the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. But the Florida Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the suit in 2017 because, in part, the plaintiffs couldn’t provide any evidence to back its much-publicized claims of harm to public schools. In that case, the FEA actually submitted a similar “analysis” to the courts, which appropriately gave it zero credence.

To accompany the new “analysis,” the FEA furnished gloomy quotes from FEA president Fedrick Ingram, who claimed the draining via vouchers would lead to overcrowded classrooms; cuts to music, art and AP programs; and deteriorating school buildings. All 10 outlets published some of those quotes. No hard questions. No polite push back. Just literal cut and paste.

We’ve been hearing the same sky-is-falling from choice critics for 20 years. Somehow, they continue to get a receptive hearing from reporters, even though the predicted parade of horribles has never materialized. Instead, Florida’s rapid expansion of choice has come at the same time the state has seen some of the biggest academic gains in the nation.

I know a reporter’s job is tougher than ever. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that reporters be equal opportunity scrutinizers. There are hard questions worth posing to all sides in the debate over choice. There are plenty of reports worth telling readers about. But the FEA “analysis” was not one of them.