State tax policies are undermining high-quality public education by redirecting public dollars for K-12 education toward private schools via tuition tax credits, according to a new report published by the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) and the School Superintendents Association (AASA). In the case of Florida, the scholarship tax credit program failed to achieve the primary objective of improving student performance. Instead, it left low-income students further behind academically those low-income students who stayed in public schools, according to the report.
Those in favor of funding the scholarship tax credit will argue that it allows low-income students trapped in failing public schools to attend a “better” non-public school. However, in Florida, the report shows that students receiving the scholarship tax credit vouchers saw no meaningful gains in their standardized test scores. Moreover, low-income voucher students who returned to public schools performed worse than low-income students who stayed in public schools.
The program also falls short of helping low-income families pay for costs not covered by the vouchers. A family whose income is $28,000 per year is unlikely to take advantage of the program based on the cost of tuition that remains after voucher payment, plus the cost of transportation, uniforms and other associated costs. While Florida-specific data is not available, at the national level, the average annual cost of private elementary school education is $7,770, and private high school education is $13,030, according to the report. Florida has one of the largest scholarship tax credit programs, with an average voucher of $5,458 per student.
Whether or not monies used to fund the state scholarship tax credit program are public funds remains a debate in Florida. But crediting wealthy individuals and corporations for funding the organizations that administer the voucher programs with monies that would have otherwise been collected as tax revenues is an indirect way of providing public funds to private schools, argues the report. Concerns about the constitutionality of using public funds to pay for a private school education and the impact of this spending on state budgets were also highlighted by ITEP and the AASA.
Setting aside any concerns about constitutionality and the diversion of resources from public schools to private schools, based on the findings that Florida’s scholarship tax credit program failed to improve student achievement, state lawmakers should reassess the program and consider more effective means of improving student achievement.