Several States Expand Educational Choice

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that expands eligibility for the Florida’s longstanding scholarship tax credit (STC) program and creates a new education savings account for students with special needs. Earlier this year, Oklahoma expanded its STC program and Arizona expanded both its STC and education savings account programs. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation creating a new STC program, though unfortunately it is limited only to low-income students assigned to government schools that are designated as “failing” by the state’s board of education. Students in “non-failing” schools that are nevertheless failing to meet their needs are not eligible to receive scholarships.

The changes to Florida’s scholarship program were mostly positive. Florida eliminated the requirement that students first spend a year at a government school before being eligible to receive a scholarship. Also, starting in 2016-17, the income eligibility cap for first-time recipients will increase to include middle-income families (from 185 percent of the federal poverty line to 260 percent), with priority given to lower-income students. Students from middle-income families will receive smaller scholarships. Students in foster homes will be eligible regardless of their foster family’s income.

Unfortunately, the law adds new rules regulating the operation of scholarship organizations. Florida already has the most regulated scholarship program in the nation, which explains why the state has only one scholarship organization while other states have dozens or even (in the case of Pennsylvania) hundreds.

Back in March, the bill’s prospects seemed dim. The Florida Speaker of the House and Senate President battled over whether to mandate that private schools administer the state test (i.e. – Common Core) as a condition of receiving scholarship students. As a result, the bill’s sponsor withdrew the legislation. That poison pill would have severely restricted school autonomy and parental choice. Fortunately, the resurrected bill that the governor signed into law did not mandate state tests. Participating schools must still administer nationally norm-referenced tests.

Florida’s new education savings account for students with special needs is based on Arizona’s highly popular program, but with a twist: nonprofit scholarship organizations will administer the program rather than the state, though the accounts will still use public funds.

Parents will be able to use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, curriculum, therapy, post-secondary educational institutions in Florida, and other defined educational services. … The maximum amount for the Personal Learning Scholarship Account shall be equivalent to 90 percent of the state and local funds reflected in the state funding formula that would have gone to the student had he or she attended public school.  

Students qualify if they reside in Florida and are eligible to enroll in kindergarten through 12th grade who have an Individualized Education Plan or have been diagnosed with one of the following: autism, Down syndrome, Intellectual disability, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina-bifida, Williams syndrome, and kindergartners who are considered high-risk. 

Unfortunately, New York legislators ended the session without passing an educational choice bill, despite majority support in both chambers of the legislature and a promise by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Timothy Cardinal Dolan that he would support STC legislation. Given the legislative support, the New York Post faulted Gov. Cuomo for the failure to pass the legislation:

The human tragedy, of course, is who will pay the price for Cuomo’s alliance with the Working Families Party & Co.: i.e., the children of actual working families, who have no avenues of escape from rotten public schools where they aren’t learning.