Market Structure & Barriers to Entry in Education Tax Credit Programs

I want to thank John Kirtley for his gracious reply to my criticism of his policy guidelines. He has spilled a tremendous amount of blood, sweat, and tears on the ground fighting to establish, protect, and expand the largest private school choice program in the country, and I, quite simply, have not. I think this kind of policy debate is good for the health of the school choice movement, however, so on it goes …

Andrew Coulson posted a response to many of John’s points, but I think some areas deserve an expanded treatment. One of the primary issues in our discussion is centralization vs. diversification of scholarship organizations. I did not claim there was a “mandated” monopoly, which I take to mean government-mandated. Step Up for Students is, however, the only active scholarship organization in the state. It became the sole scholarship organization through hard work and good performance. John mentions Microsoft in his defense of market dominance, but Microsoft never fully monopolized any product or service. There is, however, a literal monopoly of the education tax credit system that was produced and is maintained by problematic provisions in the credit program that create a very high barrier to entry. The structure of the education tax credit in Florida all but ensures a monopoly in the education tax credit program.

For the first six years of the program, scholarship organizations were required to spend 100 percent of the credit funds they raised on scholarships. In other words, they had no money for overhead, which made establishing and running a scholarship organization difficult and expensive … a non-profit would need to seriously cannibalize its established charitable funding, likely already committed, and/or fundraise along two separate tracks for administrative and scholarship funding.

To put this in context, Charity Navigator, which rates non-profits, considers it acceptable for a charity to spend close to one-third of its revenue on non-program expenses. Even the 4-star rated Inner-City Scholarship Fund spends over 13 percent of its revenue on overhead expenses.

Scholarship programs, especially ones with relatively high compliance costs such as requiring detailed checks on a family’s income, require significant but entirely normal overhead spending. Furthermore, local scholarship organizations in a decentralized system act as more than a high-volume processor of financial applications. They act as community organizations that consider the needs and struggles of individual families and children, which requires spending more time and resources on each family. A 10 percent overhead allowance is eminently reasonable, indeed, within the bounds of best practices for such charities. Denying any overhead to non-profits ensured that few charitable organizations would be capable of fundraising and processing scholarships under the law.

Exacerbating this problem, scholarship organizations are not allowed to target the use of scholarship funds they raised to particular kinds of educational environments. What this means is that a non-profit would have to a) cannibalize money raised from other sources and for other purposes, and b) possibly fund educational environments that directly conflict with their conscience, mission, or best judgment. For instance, a Catholic charity would be required to fund an atheist, Wiccan, Protestant fundamentalist, Lutheran, Islamic, or any other school which met the basic requirements of the legislation. Even a non-sectarian scholarship organization is required to issue scholarships to any school, regardless of quality, as long as it meets the basic legal requirements.

In addition, the Florida tax credit applies only to corporate taxes, the vast majority of which are paid by large corporations based outside of the state of Florida. This means that fundraising is relatively difficult and time-consuming, not to mention extremely volatile, as large corporations shift revenue and expenses to minimize their tax burden year to year. It can take two years for a large corporation to begin disbursing funds after first being solicited. And fundraising requires expensive out-of-state traveling.

The corporate-only credit acts as an additional barrier to entry that grows over time and with centralization. Step Up for Students entered this constrained market efficient and well-capitalized, and spent the next decade bringing on the biggest corporate taxpayers in Florida as donors. A new entry into the credit scholarship realm would need to raise very substantial funds for fundraising for years before they saw a return in credit donations. Even should the very high quality of Step Up decline in the future, its relationships with the biggest donors, scale, and general dominance would pose a very formidable wall to climb for any non-profit. Indeed, it is far more likely that the state government would intervene long before any non-profits entered the market to impose the discipline of competition.

With extremely high start-up costs, low return for many non-profit missions, a fully established monopoly, and no profit motive or access to investment funding, the Florida education tax credit scholarship organization opportunities are all but nonexistent under current law.