The Fact Checker Valerie Strauss Might Have Used on School Choice

By 03/20/2014

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Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss is not known for an open mind on school choice, but she would have been wise to do a little homework before reprinting a 1,300-word oped from an anti-voucher activist in Florida. Had this column been submitted to The Fact Checker at the Post, 4 Pinocchios might not have done it justice.

The op-ed is written by a Palm Beach parent activist, Rita Solnet, who sincerely believes every parent wants his or her child to attend the school down the street. But her attack on a proposed expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship suffers not only from a lack of sensitivity to the plight of desperately poor parents, mostly of color, who have their children on waiting lists. Unfortunately, it also shows a remarkable indifference to basic facts.

Let’s walk through some of the highlights:

The courts ruled Jeb’s first voucher program unconstitutional. Not to be outdone by the courts, Jeb created another ‘corporate voucher’ program that sidestepped the court’s concern over separation of church and state by using a middleman agency.”

This is a two-fer. The Florida Supreme Court did in fact rule against Opportunity Scholarships, but not on the no-aid-to-religion clause. Instead it found the first voucher program to violate the uniformity clause in the state’s public education article. More striking, the claim that former Gov. Bush rushed to enact a tax credit scholarship after the decision as a legal subterfuge is more than a little time-challenged. The court issued its decision in 2006. The scholarship program was created in 2001.

This year, a massive voucher expansion bill was filed seeking a limit of close to the “B” word – nearly a billion dollars.”

That bill was actually passed back in 2010.That legislation created an automatic escalator allowing the program to grow up to 25 percent per year, so long as corporations are willing to donate, and so long as parents desire scholarships for their children. The current bill allows the program to grow slightly faster in order to reduce the current 34,000 waiting list quicker, but ultimately, provides only $44 million extra.

Florida already pays some $300 million to voucher schools with an automatic escalator built in to increase the cap. Florida voters rejected this concept in 2012.”

Voters actually rejected something quite different in 2012. They rejected Amendment 8, which would have removed the state’s no-aid-to-religion clause. As even the Florida School Boards Assocation, an opponent of the amendment, noted at the time, passage or rejection of the amendment would have no direct impact on the tax credit scholarship program.

Any way you look at it, private entities receive public tax dollars with no accountability.”

One can certainly debate whether there is sufficient accountability, but there is certainly more than none. All scholarship students take state-approved nationally norm referenced tests such as the Stanford 10 or Terra Nova. The gain scores are reported publicly, both at the state level and for every school with 30 or more tested scholarship students. Additionally, schools with $250,000 or more in scholarship funds must submit independent financial reports to the state.

There is “zero evidence required of return-on-investment by voucher schools.”

There is actually six years’ worth of state-mandated reports on this subject. These reports – completed by Northwestern University economist David Figlio – continue to show that students entering the program are among the lowest performers in their prior public school, but once on the program, the students experience learning gains on par with all students nationally. That is particularly encouraging news considering 70 percent of the scholarship students are black or Hispanic, and the average household income is just 9 percent above poverty.

All of this information is made public on the Florida Department of Education website.

By diverting money away from public schools into private hands, it weakens our neighborhood public schools.”

There is actually no evidence for this. The scholarship, worth $4,880 this year, amounts to less than 60 percent of the cost of per-pupil spending in public schools. According to yet another state government report, each $1 lost in tax credits saves the state $1.49 in education expenditures. Five different independent agencies have now issued seven different reports that all arrive at the same financial conclusion: the scholarship saves money that can be used to enhance neighborhood schools.

Ms. Solnet concludes her commentary with a theme that is familiar to Florida readers. “Vouchers,” she writes, “actually strip away parents’ ultimate choice.” These parents, we are assured, “don’t want to be forced to shop around” and they “don’t have the time nor do they want to become experts.”

Don’t be unduly alarmed by the tortured logic. It is simply her way of expressing her view that neighborhood schools are the only way education should be ever be delivered, regardless of the century in which one might live.

Since Ms. Solnet is president of a group that calls itself “Parents Across Florida,” let’s end by testing her claims about parents against one final set of facts.

Do parents not want to “shop around”? In Florida last year, the parents of nearly 1.5 million school children chose a school other than their assigned neighborhood school. That’s 42 percent of the children in preK-12 in this state.

Do vouchers “strip away parents’ ultimate choice”? This year, the parents of nearly 60,000 of the poorest students in Florida applied for and received a scholarship. Roughly 30,000 more were left on a waiting list.

-Patrick Gibbons

This first appeared on redefinED.

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