Florida's Tax Credit Program and Alternative Education (A Report)

Florda's Enrollment Red and Black Ink, LLC 2017.

There has been a lot of discussion around school choice and the use of public money to fund private schools.  Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program has been held up, nationally, as a model to follow.  Given this attention, it may be a good idea to know a little more about this "voucher" program as it could be coming to an area near you.

Of course when it comes to schools you have:

  • traditional public schools—which educate the majority of children;
  • charter schools—charter schools are public schools that operate under a charter (granted by a local authority), which outlines its mission, goals, requirements, etc.;
  • private schools—can be religious schools or any other type of school;
  • homeschool—some parents choose to educate their children from home.

These are some of the types of schools that can be found in almost any state.

In 2013 - 2014, 27% of Florida’s public school students (K - 12) attended schools other than the ones they were assigned.  Thousands more attended private schools, online schools and home schools (83,359 students were homeschooled in 2015 - 2016).

When it comes specifically to private vs. public schools, in 2015 - 2016, 2,792,234 students (or 89.0% of Florida's students) were in public schools; while 345,796 students (or 11%) were in private schools.  Even when you consider that (in 2013 - 2014) 27% of Florida’s public school students attended schools other than the ones they were assigned to, that still leaves millions of children in traditional public schools.

So when it comes to Florida’s Tax Credit Program, let’s take a closer look.

Key West, Florida

Key West, Florida

Florida’s Tax Credit program was established to encourage corporations to voluntarily donate to non-profit Scholarship Funding Organizations (SFOs).  Scholarship Funding Organizations then turnaround and reward scholarships to low-income students to help pay for costs associated with attending a private school (or to help toward transportation to another school in an adjacent public school district).

In 2015 - 2016 78,664 students, who were enrolled in 1,602 participating private schools, received scholarships totaling $418.6 million. 

In 2016 - 2017, scholarships awarded to children can not exceed $5,886 for private school (or $500 for transportation to a public school not in the district where the student lives) and the maximum amount Florida can award in tax credits for 2016 - 2017 is $559 million. 

Summary of How it Works

  1. Corporations give money to Scholarship Funding Organizations; 
  2. those organizations in turn give scholarships to low-income students; and 
  3. students take that money and put it toward the costs of attending a private school. 

Tax Credits

In return for their donations, corporations receive tax credits.  Florida’s Tax Credit Program, which was started in 2001, originally offered income tax credits to corporations that made these donations.  

It has since expanded to offer credits against an insurance premium tax, against severance taxes on oil and gas production, against “self-accrued sales tax liabilities of direct pay permit holders,” and credits against alcoholic beverage taxes on beer, wine and spirits.

It is important to note that Florida’s Department of Education does not have jurisdiction over private schools—it does not license, approve, accredit or regulate private schools.  It does require them to complete an annual online survey and to comply with health and safety regulations.

So this is the model that was touted by the current U.S, Department of Education.  

Alternative Education

Interestingly, Florida was also in the spotlight regarding a new report on alternative education.  Alternative education and alternative schools are reserved for students who are at risk of dropping out of high school.  They can be students who have behavioral issues, students who are struggling academically or students who may face other challenges that affect their attendance (truancy, the need to care for a family member, foster care etc.).  An organization called, ProPublica, just released a report on alternative education and it focused a good deal of its analysis on Florida.

The report alleges that schools in Florida use alternative charter schools to funnel students to these schools in order to underrepresent the true dropout rates in some areas.  The report spotlighted Sunshine High School, which is a charter alternative school in Orlando that is run by a for-profit school management firm.  Remember charter schools are public schools and they fall under the jurisdiction of local and state authorities. 

Olympia High School is a school not far from Sunshine High.  The report cited examples of children being asked to leave schools like Olympia (which has a good rating under Florida’s school grading system) to attend Sunshine instead.  To be clear, children and parents have to choose to go to Sunshine, but the conditions at Sunshine have been reported as being less than ideal.

Children complained of sitting in front of a computer most of the day, with little time in front of teachers.  Sunshine High is located in a strip mall (Oakhill Village) and it is situated not far from a liquor store and a tobacco store.  

Really, lookup Sunshine High School in Orlando, Florida—it is located in a strip mall.  What does that say to the children about the importance of their education?

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Students who leave Sunshine High, without getting a high school diploma, are coded as transferring to a GED or an adult education program...in that way they are never counted as dropouts since Florida does not count a student who attends an adult education program as a dropout (even though Sunshine officials can’t say where the children actually go when the leave the school without a diploma).

Sunshine High School has about 455 students...85% of them are Hispanic or black and it offers few extracurricular activities for the students.

The report alleges that there are about 500,000 students across the country in alternative schools and that more and more areas may be using alternative schools as places where academically struggling students are "dumped" to help preserve the graduation rates at other schools.

The report warns that charter schools, run by for-profit companies, could fill a niche in the area of alternative education if national authorities continue to push school reform in this way.

Stay tuned for more updates and articles.

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Copyright, 2017, Red and Black Ink, LLC.

References:

Florida Department of Education. Fact Sheet.  Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice.  Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.  September 2016.

Florida Department of Education.  Finance: Financial Aid and Scholarships.  Accessed March 2017.

Florida Department of Education.  Florida's Private Schools, Annual Report 2015-16.  June 2016

Florida Department of Education.  School Choice Options: Florida Continues to Lead the Nation.  March 2015.

Heather Vogell and Hannah Fresques. Alternative’ Education: Using Charter Schools to Hide Dropouts and Game the System.  School officials nationwide dodge accountability ratings by steering low achievers to alternative programs. In Orlando, Florida, the nation’s tenth-largest district, thousands of students who leave alternative charters run by a for-profit company aren’t counted as dropouts.  ProPublica, February 21, 2017.

https://www.propublica.org/article/alternative-education-using-charter-schools-hide-dropouts-and-game-system

Heather Vogell and Hannah Fresques.  ProPublica, WUSA.  “Hidden dropouts: How schools game the system by dumping underachievers into alternative programs.”  February 21, 2017.  Accessed March 5, 2017.