Education voucher politics in Florida, early April 2014

Halfway through the springtime legislative scrum this year in Florida, it is not clear what if anything will change about Florida’s set of education voucher policies. Events in the Florida Senate today scramble things a little more, and I do not know whether that will clear an evident logjam or tangle it further.

Florida currently has two voucher programs at the K-12 level, the John McKay program for children with disabilities funded directly by the state and a second for children of lower-income families funded by corporate tax credits. Before the annual legislative session began a month ago, House Speaker Will Weatherford announced his desire to expand the corporate-tax-credit voucher program by expanding the tax-credit funding scheme to sales taxes — that is, sales taxes that in-state businesses collected could be diverted from the general fund to the current corporate-tax-credit program. There was also a proposal (among others) to expand the voucher program for children with disabilities, creating a “savings pool” for services that would divert funding from the Florida Education Finance Program (the main mechanism for funding public schools in Florida).

Senate President Don Gaetz also had a policy position stated clearly before the session: voucher programs could expand only if they accepted greater accountability. Currently, there is no assessment of McKay voucher recipients on par with the publicly-reported assessments of students with disabilities in local public schools and charter schools (the vast majority of which take regular state assessments). There is a requirement for beneficiaries of the corporate-tax-credit vouchers to take some test (norm-referenced tests, not the state assessments for children in public schools) and for those test results to be reported in aggregate but there is nothing remotely parallel to the existing accountability for the other schools that receive public funding: local public schools and charter schools. Senate President Gaetz had made clear that huge gulf in accountability had to be addressed for him to help any voucher expansion.

Several weeks into the legislative session, the Senate sponsor of the tax-credit voucher expansion pulled his bill, something observers thought was a signal that there was no chance of a compromise between Senate and House leaders on the issue. Last week, a House committee inserted the tax-credit expansion into a separate bill on vouchers for children with disabilities. No change (at least thus far) in the disposition in the Senate, at least until today. Today, apparently, the Education Appropriations subcommittee in the Senate modified an original bill creating a “personal learning account” (i.e., a voucher fund) for children with disabilities, changing it into a pool of money for general services not related to primary schooling and using funds other than the Florida Education Funding Program. With that change, the major opponents of school vouchers (especially the Florida Education Association) dropped their opposition.

First, what I understand is the current situation in the legislature: the House has one bill that combines the generalized voucher fund for children with disabilities, diverting funding from the main school funding mechanism in Florida, with an expansion of the corporate-tax voucher program via the sales-tax diversion.1 The Senate has the creation of a “personal learning account” pool, separate from the main school funding mechanism in Florida and that the legislative history imagines will be used for general services, such as applied behavior analysis, occupational therapy, or speech and language therapy. There is no expansion of the corporate tax-credit voucher program currently in the Senate.

The major players at the state level:

  • Foundation for Florida’s Future, the non-profit closely linked with former Governor Jeb Bush. It has never seen an expansion of vouchers it hasn’t liked, and as far as I can tell it has never come out in favor of accountability for vouchers programs on par with public schools, or the type of sliding-scale accountability that the Fordham Institute supports.
  • The sole disburser of the corporate-tax-credit funds is Step up for Students, a non-profit organization that has performed an interesting dance about policy preferences over the past 10 years. Sometimes it looks like it is promoting a variety of perspectives, but it also sometimes looks as if it is responding more to pressures from the schools it works with, and thus can look remarkably like a lobbyist opposing the type of accountability Senator Gaetz wants.
  • Florida School Boards Association, which lobbies on behalf of school board members across the state. FSBA sometimes is aggressive in defending local public schools, sometimes negotiates. It has had a sometimes-awkward relationship with the legislature as it defends what many members see as an expansive constitutional role for school boards while the legislature often centralizes authority–this comes out in charter-school policies but also the type of centralized voucher program discussed above.
  • Florida Education Association, the joint NEA/AFT state affiliate that represents the vast bulk of Florida’s K-12 teachers. FEA is more aggressive than FSBA but also picks its battles. (Disclosure: I am a member of FEA through my membership in the faculty union at USF.)
  • House Speaker Weatherford and Senate President Gaetz, of course. They are both term-limited at the end of this year, so this is their last chance to influence state policy of all sorts as legislative leaders.
  • Governor Rick Scott, who is seeking re-election.
  • The Florida Supreme Court, which has not been asked to rule on any voucher program since it struck down a voucher program in 2006, one that was connected with former Governor Bush’s accountability policy for local public schools. Everyone else in the state has danced around the implications of the 2006 decision, which revolved around state constitutional language mandating “a uniform system” of public elementary and secondary schools. Does the McKay voucher program violate that? Very possibly, but no one has challenged the program in court. The corporate tax-credit voucher program might be less vulnerable, because the funds never touch state coffers (Arizona’s tax credit vouchers are protected for that reason–long story on that), but the addition of a sales-tax mechanism might crack that potential protection for several reasons.2

There might be others, but these are obvious major parties. Unless the House or Senate is willing to compromise on the issue of accountability in voucher programs, I do not see anything other than the “personal learning account” separate from public-school funding passing both chambers.

There is an historical angle to the funding of “related” services such as applied behavior analysis and occupational therapy, which are not direct classroom instruction. For more than forty years, many school systems have outsourced many of the services that the “personal learning account” could pay for. Speech and language specialists are usually in-house, but in many school districts, other “itinerant services” are usually contracted out. That part of special education is one of the holes in the public-private divide in education history. In my research in Nashville, I thought it was an important signal of school district management of special education when the school district moved from one-off, idiosyncratic contracts to approval of bulk services, and thus general contracting provisions for those related services. It’s akin to the difference between a school board wanting to approve a contract with a handyman to fix the fence at one school, on the one hand, and approving a line for all such services below $15,000 per contract as part of the annual school district budget.

The related-services picture is often complicated in states outside Florida with tiny, fragmented districts. In giant school systems such as in Tampa, the district might well have employees who perform occupational therapy, physical therapy, and so forth. If you live in New Jersey, that’s much less likely simply because New Jersey has hundreds of small districts. Some regional clusters develop–in California, county school boards can operate specialized programs that individual districts cannot, and New York BOCES districts (BOCES = Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, or regional collaboratives) serve the same function. But the individual small school district where a child is enrolled? Often in-house services are not possible.

For both contracted services in public schools and anything that might come out of the “personal learning account” proposals, there is a huge question about quality. From the time I spent as a postdoctoral associate in a special education department in the 1990s, I’ve seen the amount of time and money wasted on activities such as Doman-Delacato “patterning.” For some of it, local school districts can filter out fads and frauds better than individual parents, but that’s far from guaranteed.

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Notes

  1. It is not a tax credit, because retailers collect the tax, but we consumers pay it. The only way to make it a tax credit is to give refunds to everyone who buys from a store selecting the voucher diversion. []
  2. Briefly, a diversion of sales taxes would be chosen by agents other than those who pay, and sales taxes in Florida are a primary means of funding local public schools. []