NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Voucher program may expand under new legislation

Feb 9, 2009



A school-choice advocacy group said low-income Florida students receiving corporate scholarships to private schools could lose their funding in a souring economy if the Legislature does not step in.

About 24,000 students throughout the state receive scholarships to attend private schools through the Corporate Income Tax Scholarship Program, which offers tax credits to private companies that donate to the scholarship fund. But with many businesses trying to ride out the tough economic climate, there isn’t a whole lot of money to spare.

“If we’re not able to get funding for the scholarships….we will have to cut back on the scholarships we award,” said Denise Lasher, a lobbyist for All Children Matter Florida, a school choice advocacy organization.

A bill filed by Rep. Will Weatherford, R- Wesley Chapel, would expand the funding base for the Corporate Income Tax Scholarship Program by offering up insurance premium tax credits and some sales tax credits to companies that donate to the scholarship program.

Currently the program doles out scholarships – public school advocates often call them vouchers – to the tune of $3,950 per student, and families often pay up to an additional $1,000 to cover tuition and fees. The average family income of scholarship recipients is about $24,000.

Advocates of the program say the vouchers ultimately save money because the state spends more money on a per- student basis to educate a student through the traditional public school funding formula. If corporate tax credit students lose their scholarships, advocates said, the state would have to come up with more money to educate them in public schools in an already tight budget year.

A December 2008 report by OPPAGA, the Legislature’s auditing office, backed up that assertion, saying that the state saved “$1.49 in state education funding for every dollar loss in corporate income tax revenue due to credits for scholarship contributions.”

However, public school funding proponents immediately attacked that report. Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, asked that the issue be re-examined and questioned the report’s findings. Lawson questioned whether the money could be dubbed “savings” when the report also concluded that because of the program, the state simply avoided spending $118.1 million on education.

Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said that the issue of expanding money for private schools should be postponed until the state’s budget crisis has subsided and when there can be more clarity as to whether the program does indeed save the state money.

“At this time when the major focus of education – and in fact the whole legislative process – is the budget bill this year, trying to expand money for private schools, it’s just not what we ought to be focusing on,” Pudlow said.

The legislation has currently been referred to several committees for consideration, and Weatherford didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.