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Jon East: Tax-credit scholarships benefit 78,000 of Florida’s poorest schoolchildren

By all accounts, the Jericho School, a private facility opened 21 years ago in Jacksonville, does a wonderful job helping students with autism and other special needs succeed academically.

That nearly all of its students are enrolled through two state voucher programs also reflects the fertile nature of Florida’s expanding educational choice landscape.

In a recent column on Context Florida, Jericho also served to illustrate a confounding contradiction among many of those who want courts to throw out a state scholarship serving 78,000 of Florida’s poorest schoolchildren.

In her recent rebuke of the 15-year-old Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Julie Delegal underscored the selective nature of this legal attack. She argued that the scholarship amounts to a conspiratorial plan to finance the program with tax-credited contributions through what amounts to a ruse.

“Florida tax payments,” she wrote, “have been diverted to fund private school tuition.”

To her credit, Delegal, a dedicated patron of public education, also disclosed through a footnote that her husband served on the Jericho board of directors and that “the family and the family business remain proud supporters of the school.”

Their devotion is admirable but jarringly incongruous. Jericho’s students benefit from two scholarship programs for students with special needs, McKay and Gardiner, that are funded directly from the treasury. Roughly $221 million last year in direct taxpayer dollars.

In this selective indignation, Delegal is not alone. Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, which filed the tax-credit scholarship case in 2014, recently held up the state’s prekindergarten program as a model “to improve student learning.”

What she didn’t say is that Pre-K is a government-funded voucher, spending $400 million in tax dollars last year to allow 125,000 4-year-olds to attend private schools.

The landscape of public education has shifted dramatically in the past generation, as students and their parents choose from all manner of learning options – science and arts-focused schools, career academies, open enrollment, lab schools, magnet schools, International Baccalaureate, gifted academies, charter schools, home education. Last year, more than 1.5 million – or 43 percent of all – preK-12 students attended schools they chose.

More to the point, 488,000 of those students chose privately operated schools. Of the five programs serving them – charter, McKay, Gardiner, Pre-K and tax-credit scholarships – four of them are funded directly from the treasury. The teacher union has sued the only one that isn’t.

That’s one reason the alleged conspiracy over the “indirect route” is hard to take seriously. The other is the timeline.

The Tax Credit Scholarship was created in 2001, five years before the Florida Supreme Court overturned a voucher program that served students who were attending public schools judged to be failing. The Legislature created the tax-credit scholarship as a supplement, not a replacement, to its parental choice lineup.

The first judge to hear this case, Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds, tossed it out last May for lack of standing, saying the teacher union could not prove that public education was being harmed. That result was hardly surprising. Three different state Supreme Courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have all ruled in favor of tax-credit scholarships, and the U.S. court rejected the challenge to Arizona scholarships on the very same issue of standing. No state supreme court has ruled the other way.

It’s worth noting, as well, that the same Florida appellate court that is now hearing the appeal has ruled in the past that tax funds are distinctly different from tax credits.

“In the case of direct subsidy, the state forcibly diverts the income of both believers and nonbelievers to churches,” it wrote in 2004. “In the case of an exemption, the state merely refrains from diverting to its own uses income independently generated by the churches through voluntary contributions.”

Missing from this constitutional debate, of course, is how it helps students. Florida has expanded school choice because it understands that different children learn in different ways, and the tax-credit scholarship serves children who tend to have the fewest options and struggle the most.

Two-thirds of the scholarship students are black or Hispanic, more than half come from single-parent homes. The average household income is barely above poverty, and they were the lowest performers in the schools they left behind.

Yet, for seven consecutive years, their standardized test scores show they are achieving the same academic gains as students of all income levels.

Most unfortunately, perhaps, the lawsuit has attempted to portray the scholarship as an affront to public education.

But the program, like all the other learning options that have broken the historic link between a child’s home address and school assignment, is an integral part of modern public education. It also saves money that can help district neighborhood schools and undergirds our shared commitment to equal educational opportunity.

Martin Luther King III, who spoke for the scholarship at a capital rally that drew 10,000 people earlier this year, made this same point. “My view is, there is room for both,” he told a reporter. “It’s not an either-or. It should never have been framed that way. The question is, what is the best thing for the kids of our nation?”

Removing 78,000 children from schools that are helping them is no way to help.

***

Jon East, a former editorial writer for the Tampa Bay Times, is vice president of policy and public affairs for Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps administer tax credit scholarships. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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