Florida’s public schools fear voucher program will wreak havoc on budgets


TALLAHASSEE — Now that Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed legislation that opens up the voucher program to all school-age children in Florida, public school officials are anxious to see how the state’s Senate and House will figure out how to pay for it.

“We want to make sure we’re fully funded,” said Angie Gallo, an Orange County School Board member who was active in the PTA for years. “What we’re asking for is that it doesn’t harm public schools or children.”

School board members and district administrators — already putting their own budgets together for next year — won’t know the fiscal impact of the new law for at least another month, after the House and Senate resolve their differences and pull together a budget for the governor to sign.

“Choice models induce inefficiency in the system as they lead to enrollment transfers and fluctuations that require … adjustments to overhead costs (and) expenses,” said Bruce Baker, chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami.

“Every dollar in the education system is not allocated on a per child basis, nor can or should it be. If a few kids leave class, you still carry the same classroom expenses,” said Baker, who’s done fiscal models on the impact of school choice. “It’s not until several leave that you can adjust those expenses, and offer one fewer section of grade 3, or whatever.”

Anticipating the demand for these new vouchers and the supply of private school seats is tricky, Baker said.

By eliminating income requirements, the Legislature is creating a universal voucher system open to all, from the poorest to the wealthiest Floridians. That has the potential to open the floodgates on school choice in Florida, although legislative analyses have been conservative.

Currently, about 2.9 million children attend public schools.  An additional 327,000 kids are in private schools, with about two-thirds of them already enrolled in the voucher program, a legislative analysis shows. That leaves about 116,000 private school students eligible for scholarships, of whom about 50% would participate, the analysis estimates.

Opponents of the bill fear millions of tax dollars will be redirected from public schools to poor-quality private schools or wealthy private and religious schools that aren’t required to adhere to the same standards as public schools or report back to the state.

However, priority for vouchers under the law is supposed to go to low-income families.

“More concerning is that significant transparency is lost when providing funding to private institutions that lack the same public oversight and reporting requirements,” Baker said. “This is especially true of religious schools. This is both on the financial side and on the student outcomes.”

Nobody really knows how many parents will take advantage of the expanded program, or how much it will cost. The Department of Education hasn’t provided an analysis of the program’s potential impact.

Legislative analysts have put the estimated cost between $210 million and $646 million, based on a number of possible scenarios, while Florida Policy Institute, an independent, progressive watchdog, estimates the impact could be as much as $4 billion.

“Have you ever seen consideration of this type of money without an analysis from the agency that is supposed to run it?” state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Hollywood Democrat, asked a group of reporters.

The uncertainty about how many parents will actually take advantage of the new law and how much it will cost school districts is causing a lot of worry about “if it does go beyond the projections (and) if they have enough in reserve,” Gallo said.

If they fall short, the per-student dollars will be distributed on a prorated basis, which could mean substantially less for all school districts, Gallo said.

“Every school district would get less,” Gallo said. “It’s impossible to project when we’re putting together our budgets.”

Florida’s voucher programs already serve more than 252,000 children, both youngsters from low-income families and those with disabilities. Those who aren’t disabled receive from $7,250 to $7,850 a year, while most kids with disabilities get about $10,000 a year. The current program cost taxpayers $1.7 billion in 2022.

So far, the Senate and House haven’t agreed on the amount to cover the cost of the new law.

State Sen. Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican, said the Senate has $2.2 billion in its $41 billion education budget slated to pay for what’s officially known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program. An additional $350 million has been set aside in reserve in case their estimates are too low.

The House education budget of $26.6 billion includes a $2 billion increase over the current year’s base student allocation, said state Rep. Josie Tomkow, a Polk City Republican. The House has appropriated $110 million if the October and February school survey shows more scholarship students than anticipated, she said.

Supporters of the measure have downplayed the economic impact of the voucher expansion, saying the money will follow the student.

But opponents say that only applies to students who leave public schools to go to private ones. Money doesn’t follow kids who have never been to public school before, and those kids already in private schools could end up siphoning revenue away from public schools they had never attended.

“It’s a straight-up money grab from the school district,” Gallo said.

Another problem arises because public school funding is based in part on the student population. Fewer students mean less money for the districts.

For example, Orange County has a little over 209,000 students enrolled in public schools and an additional 11,000 on vouchers, district data shows. If another 11,000 students leave the public school system, about $85 million in school tax money would walk out the door with them, based on the voucher dollar amount given by legislative analysts.

The loss of students doesn’t change the amount of money the district has to pay to keep the lights on, bus the students and pay their teachers, Gallo said.

“I support school choice but I’d like it to be funded fully and get these numbers figured out and that no child will be harmed,” Gallo added. “This is a lot of money and it’s (taxpayers) money. It’s huge.”


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