More parents will be able to afford private schools for their children if the governor signs a bill expanding Florida’s tax credit scholarships.
While some school advocates say that will divert more money from public schools, which serve most of Florida’s youth, some private schools welcome the bill as needed relief for cash-strapped parents and recession-weary, tuition-charging institutions.
The bill’s passage cheered some at the Jacksonville Adventist Academy, a 48-student school that in recent years lost some students to the recession. The scholarship helps more than a quarter of the school’s students, said Sabrina Delacruz, its administrative assistant, and it may win back some families.
“Over the last several years, we have lost several families who needed financial aid to keep their students in a private school, but fell in the gap of making too much money to be eligible for a scholarship and not enough money to pay for a private education,” she said. “As the economy has suffered, so has our donations and ability to help those students on our own.”
The legislature created the tax credit scholarships, which are similar to vouchers, in 2001 so low-income families could afford private school tuition. Corporations technically fund the scholarships and get their money back in tax credits.
The measure that passed would expand scholarship eligibility so more families qualify based on income and some middle-class families could for the first time qualify for partial scholarships. Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the bill.
Currently to qualify for a scholarship, a student’s family must make 180 percent or less of the federal poverty guideline, which for a family of four is about $44,122. If students get a scholarship and their family income grows, say, because a parent got a better job, they can keep the scholarship up to an income of 230 percent of poverty, or $54,855 for a family of four.
The new measure would allow students to keep the scholarship up to 260 percent of the income limit — or $62,010 for a family of four. It also makes partial scholarships possible for families earning between 230 percent and 260 percent of poverty beginning in 2016-17, but the amount of the scholarship would decline as the income neared the limit.
That is good news for many parochial schools and families who needed the original scholarship, said Kathleen Bagg, spokeswoman for the Diocese of St. Augustine, which includes the Jacksonville area.
“A lot of the families were within $1 of income eligibility and couldn’t get a scholarship,” Bagg said. “Now, they can at least get a partial scholarship... That will help a lot of families.”
Another change in the bill allows all eligible private school students to apply for the scholarship.
Currently, private school students from kindergarten through fifth grade could apply for the scholarships but older students couldn’t. They had to attend a public school for at least a year before they could qualify.
The current measure removes that requirement, again helping private schools retain their students.
“This is only going to assist families that want to keep their kids in private schools,” Bagg said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect the county (school districts) that much.”
Some school district leaders disagree.
Rebecca Couch, chairwoman of the Duval school board, said the new bill introduces more uncertainty into the school district’s budget process because the provision allows an uncounted number of students not currently in public school to be eligible for the scholarships. Couch says that money is taken out of districts’ state funding for each scholarship student, but it’s hard to predict how much to budget for the loss.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti estimates that Duval’s accumulated loss over the years from students attending private, charter or other “contract” institutions was about $70 million this year, but it may grow to $87 million by the end of next year.
But Jason Fischer, another Duval board member, predicts the impact of the new scholarship rules will be “negligible” on Duval’s books and would be far outweighed by the benefits of more families having educational choices.
The typical tax credit scholarship this year was $4,880, though that may rise next year with this bill.
The bill also creates the possibility that some middle-class families would qualify for partial scholarships, but it would still give priority to the poorest families and to foster children.
“I’d be surprised if any partial scholarships are even given out,” said Jon East, vice president of policy at Step Up for Students, which administers the scholarships.
About 92,000 families have applied for scholarships for this fall, he said, but there will likely be only $358 million in scholarship money, enough to fund 68,000 or so students.
Some state senators insisted that the expanded scholarship program be subject to additional public accountability.
The proposed measure adds some state financial oversight over the organizations that administer the scholarships while increasing how much data from scholarship recipients’ test results must be reported to the state.
But that is not enough for the measure’s opponents, including teachers unions and school district advocates, who say the 14-year-old tax credit scholarships have long had too little scrutiny.
The private schools “are largely unregulated, don’t have to follow the state’s academic standards, don’t have to hire qualified teachers and don’t have to prove to the state that they are using public money wisely,” said Joanne McCall, vice president of the 140,000-member Florida Education Association.
A key question in the battles over the scholarship was should students receiving scholarships take the same tests as other students — the FCAT and end of course exams — so they can be compared to public school peers.
Currently scholarship students take national, “norm-referenced” tests chosen by their school from a state list. The tests show how private school students stack up against other students around the country.
But the tests are not like Florida’s FCAT tests, which measure skills and knowledge based on statewide standards and achievement levels, not national comparisons.
“It’s useful and important information to have but ... Ultimately the question policy makers are trying to answer is are our students using public money in a private setting ... succeeding at higher levels than traditional public school students,” said Trey Csar, president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, a think tank and advocacy group.
Florida can’t claim that students attending private schools with public money are better off, McCall said.
“There’s no link between vouchers and gains in student achievement,” McCall said. “There’s no conclusive evidence that vouchers improve the achievement of students who use them to attend private school. Yet the legislature continues to expand voucher schools instead of providing proper funding for our neighborhood public schools.”
Florida has paid an independent research over several years to compare the academic growth of scholarship students, using the norm-referenced tests. But not all students were tested and data from many schools was not specifically reported to the public by school name.
The last report also declined to compare growth rates between the scholarship recipients and public school students taking FCATs.
East said that other, national research shows private school students have an academic advantage.
Nevertheless, Florida’s new scholarship measure would yield many more student results, he said, because it requires any school where more than half their students receiving scholarships to report their data by school name. Also, the researcher can use more students’ data.
Adventist Academy isn’t cowed by the potential for more accountability, Delacruz said, because the school already reports its students’ scores on national tests to outside sources.
“We are proud of what our students have achieved and know that test scores alone do not determine the students’ ability to become a leader and succeed,” she said.
Denise Amos: (904) 359-4083