By Caitlin Emma and Kimberly Hefling, POLITICO
President Donald Trump’s path to creating a national school voucher plan runs through Florida, where a program begun by his onetime rival Jeb Bush pays the private school tuition for nearly 100,000 kids.
Replicating that program may represent Republicans’ best shot to realize the president’s promise to extend school vouchers across America — a pillar of Trump’s school choice platform, which he calls “the civil rights issue of our time.”
Supporters of the idea, including Sen. Marco Rubio, are pushing a first-of-its-kind national tax credit based on the Florida model to be included in the tax overhaul Congress is expected to tackle this spring — a move that would allow it to be passed through a budget process requiring a simple Senate majority, rather than the 60 votes required for a standalone measure.
Using tax credits to expand a voucher program nationwide would give a huge push to school choice advocates, many of whom have fought for years to give parents the option to use public money to pay for private school tuition.
“The importance here is that you are empowering parents to make decisions and to place their kids in the environment they believe is best for their children,” Rubio said.
But Florida’s plan would almost certainly be far more difficult to implement nationwide. A federal program would likely be resisted not just by many Democrats, opposed to taking taxpayer funding from public schools, but also by some conservatives, who are likely to regard it as an undue — and expensive — expansion of the federal role in education.
To date, the Trump administration has not officially backed Rubio’s legislation although it has signaled support. The president accompanied Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last month to a Catholic school in Orlando with recipients of the tax credit program, praising it as a way to help struggling public school students and poor families.
“St. Andrew’s Catholic school represents one of the many parochial schools dedicated to the education of some of our nation’s most disadvantaged children,” Trump said. “But they’re becoming just the opposite very rapidly through education and with the help of the school choice programs.”
DeVos, meanwhile, returns to Florida for the third time Thursday, visiting a Christian school in Miami where nearly all of the students get tuition assistance from public funds. A spokesman for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.
Both Rubio and Rep. Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican who introduced a companion bill in the House, say the White House has shown interest in their legislation. “I expect to have them as a partner as we move forward,” Rokita said.
Backers of Florida’s 16-year-old program say it has saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars because the state spends less to educate children in private schools than in public schools. And they say that competition has also bolstered public schools — a contention borne out by research. Along the way, the program has won over one-time naysayers such as Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.), a former state legislator who says he has been thanked by many parents grateful for the chance to send their kids to private schools.
“Every parent who … had an opportunity to send their kids to these schools, were really happy,” Lawson said.
Florida’s program gives tax credits to corporations that donate to a state-approved organization, which then awards funds to working class families for private, often religious school. The system circumvents a Florida law that prevents taxpayer dollars from flowing to religious schools.
Nearly 70 percent of students participating in Florida’s program are black or Hispanic and more than half of students live in a single-parent home. The average household income of participating families is a little over $24,000. And about a quarter of students are from Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest school district.
The program is not without its critics — a legal challenge brought by the state’s largest teachers union contends the program is unconstitutional because it funnels state money into religious schools. More than three quarters of the students in the program are enrolled in religious schools.
But the state’s top court in January dismissed the case, after lower courts had found the union lacked standing to sue.
“All of the normal attacks that the teachers unions have on school choice have just been disproven in the state of Florida,” said Patricia Levesque, CEO for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a reform advocacy organization founded by Bush.
DeVos, who had served on the group’s board, praised the ruling, saying on Twitter it would give families a “clear path toward more opportunity.”
Some of the most definitive research on the Florida program by David Figlio at Northwestern University has shown that it has modestly helped improve public schools, likely as a result of competition. However, students attending private schools through the program do about the same as their public school counterparts.
But Figlio told POLITICO it’s a “very real concern” that kids using vouchers to attend private schools in other states, such as Ohio, are actually doing worse than their counterparts.
Critics also note that Florida’s private schools aren’t held accountable like public schools although they now get millions in public funding. Scholarship students are tested, but don’t take the annual test required of public school students, making comparisons difficult.
“It’s problematic because we’re working on wishes and desires and anecdotal stories, but we aren’t looking at hard facts and we have a problem with that,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
Pudlow contended the tax credit scholarship has distracted from work to strengthen neighborhood public schools.
“Our main position and our main goal is that we really ought to make every school in every neighborhood as good as it could possibly be,” Pudlow said.
Experts say that while Florida’s program saves money, it’s difficult to determine how much since some students would have attended private schools even if the program didn’t exist.
And at the federal level, savings aren’t one of the selling points.
“If the federal government is the one offering the tax credit, there’s no mechanism by which its other spending on public education is reduced,” said Martin West, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “If you did this at a large scale at the federal level, it would amount to a major centralization of spending on public education.”
Conservatives like Lindsey Burke at The Heritage Foundation worry that a national tax credit scholarship program would pressure the 17 states that offer their own tax credits to standardize their programs so they can participate.
States that create scholarship-granting organizations so they can partake in a federal program would likely have to abide by mandates, she wrote. For example, donors might be prevented from receiving tax credits if they give to organizations that are “mission-specific” — that is, working only with schools of a particular religious affiliation.
Rubio dismisses many of the political controversy surrounding vouchers saying a federal tax credit scholarship program shouldn’t fall victim to politics because it’s about helping low-income families and their children.
“This is not an assault on public education,” he said.