February 17, 2010

Eye-popping proposal to expand corporate tax-credit voucher program in Florida

When Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas criticizes the Florida House bill to expand one of Florida's large statewide voucher programs, you know something interesting is happening with the bill. Thomas has previously argued in favor of expanding vouchers, but the current bill is eye-popping for Thomas. I have somewhat different reasons for thinking it's eye-popping:

  • It expands the dollar amount per voucher from the state beyond what the state gives local school districts.
  • It has an automatic mechanism for expanding the program, instead of requiring that program proponents return to the legislature for expansion as a structural point for program oversight.
  • It requires standardized tests and reporting by schools with a certain number of students (30 per school, close in configuration to a similar threshold for reporting by public schools). E-mail correspondence with the nonprofit financial agent for the program suggests that this was chosen for a number of reasons over the Fordham Institute's suggested sliding scale of accountability by proportion of money taken from the state. This is a step towards addressing the double-standard of accountability common in voucher and tax-credit programs. On the other hand, it is not going to satisfy everyone or possibly even many: This bill does not require that voucher-receiving students take the same tests that public-school students take, and there is no corrective action required for lousy schools receiving vouchers.

The bill is an interesting political gamble, but not really one about dynamics inside the legislature. Because the Republicans control the Florida legislature with an iron fist at the moment, opponents of expanding the program would need to persuade some key Republican senators to oppose this bill, and it has elements geared to satisfy concerns of moderate Republicans in the Florida state senate (notably the test-reporting requirement and another requirement for financial reporting). No one can predict the path of any legislative session with certainty, and who knows what wild ride we're on this year. But a path through the legislature is more secure than other things.

What's surprising to me is the audacious step of boosting the voucher amount in a horrid budget year over what the average per-pupil amount the state contributes to local public schools, plus the effective elimination of any cap on the program. Four years ago, the state supreme court ruled in Holmes v. Bush that the school-label-triggered voucher program violated the state constitution's requirement for a uniform public school system. But that decision did not provoke anyone into challenging the much larger voucher programs (for students with disabilities, funded by the state directly, and for students eligible for free- and reduced-lunch programs, funded by corporate tax credits). That implicit detente has depended on uncertainties among various parties about how the state supreme court would rule on the other programs, the fact that school boards would not exactly curry favor with legislators by getting involved (though they are the obvious entities with standing), and the sense that a cap on the tax-credit voucher program gave local public schools a guarantee that the programs' funding would not balloon in unpredictable ways. 

My first reaction on reading about the bill was, "Okay, why is anyone giving school districts and others a huge incentive to challenge the larger voucher programs in Florida?" The elimination of the cap and the boosting of the voucher funding could take money away from local school boards and do so in an uneven and unpredictable fashion, precisely at a time when school districts around the state have laid off staff and teachers and are looking at several pending and potential funding cliffs: a precipitous decline of local property-tax collections, the end of federal stimulus dollars by the end of 2010-11, competing for state dollars with ballooning Medicaid expenses, new constitutional limits on expanding funding after the economy recovers, and the always-possible floating of a Florida TABOR like Colorado's. The lack of a cap, especially, is something that would have to be raised as a planning concern by competent financial officers in small districts, because the attraction of even a few thousand poor students in a rural district could remove a substantial part of state aid. That might overcome the political barriers to a number of organizations' filing a constitutional challenge to the entire tax-credit voucher program.

So why is this being filed this year, and by Will Weatherford, a second-term representative from Pasco County who was tagged by his caucus to be Speaker in 2013-14? If this is a key part of his agenda as a legislator, he has four more years after this year to get this passed. That is, if there's a Republican governor, and there's the rub. If he had run for re-election, Governor Charlie Crist probably would have won easily, even though his political star has been tarnished considerably in more than three years of avoiding hard political battles. But he's not running for re-election; he's trying to hop to the U.S. Senate, and it looks like the general election in the state will pit CFO Alex Sink against Attorney General Bill McCollum. While McCollum is leading in polls pitting the two head-to-head, that's no guarantee this far out from November. If Sink wins the governor's mansion, the chances for expanding voucher programs disappears for at least four years, and possibly longer given the fact that the Florida constitution gives the governor a role in reapportionment. At least at first glance, this bill looks like a very clever do-or-die gamble: combine some increased accountability with a long-term structural expansion of the program. 

I am speculating without solid knowledge of insider strategies, just some guesses based on the current politics of the state. But it would explain why there's a bill that could break down the post-2006 detente in Florida voucher politics.

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Posted in on February 17, 2010 10:55 AM |