December 15, 2014 9:20AM

Newspaper Doubles Down on Anti‐​School Choice Errors

Give Rolling Stone credit: when their story on sexual assault at the University of Virginia completely unraveled, they at least had the decency to admit their errors and apologize to their readers. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Florida’s Sun-Sentinel.

A few weeks ago, the Sun-Sentinel ran an error-filled editorial against educational choice. Since then, it has refused to run a retraction or even a correction of its numerous errors, including:

  • Falsely claiming that the legislature enacted a "massive expansion" of the scholarship tax credit law this year;
  • Mistakenly relying on the moot fiscal analysis of a dead bill;
  • Misreading that analysis to report a "deficit" when it actually reports savings;
  • Falsely claiming that a separate fiscal analysis by the legislature’s budget office relied on "information provided by [private] schools."

That list does not include several additional misleading comparisons and crucial omissions that were also brought to their attention.

Last week, they ran a rebuttal by Doug Tuthill, president of the Step Up for Students scholarship organization. However, they subsequently published a bellicose letter from Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, which attempts to rebut Tuthill... by repeating the same errors as the Sun-Sentinel editorial.

Blanton opened his letter by accusing Tuthill of “attempting to deceive the public,” but not a single one of Blanton’s accusations has any merit. Indeed, Blanton’s accusation better describes his own letter. Let us address his claims in order.

The Legislature Did Not Expand the Tax Credit This Year

Blanton first engages in a slight-of-hand by accusing Tuthill of claiming something that he did not actually claim:

The ‘massive expansion’ [Tuthill] denies exists refers to a $72 million increase in the program's funding limit in just the past year.

In fact, Tuthill took issue with the Sen-Sentinel’s erroneous description of “this year's massive expansion by the Legislature” because there was no such expansion by the legislature this year. The Sun-Sentinel was simply wrong. The tax credit cap automatically increases by 25 percent each year and that provision was added to the law several years ago.

Blanton also bewails the “exorbitant $358 million cap” without informing readers that the cap amounts to less than 1.4 percent of Florida’s total public school spending.

Scholarship Recipients Are Low-Income

Next, after noting that the legislature raised the income eligibility ceiling to include a family-of-four earning $62,000 per year (260 percent of the federal poverty line), Blanton snarkily comments “that doesn't sound like ‘Florida's poorest schoolchildren’" – a phrase Tuthill had used to describe the scholarship recipients.

Here, Blanton ignores two crucial facts. First, the law specifies that low-income students take priority. Second, the average household income of scholarship families was only $24,067 this year, just 4.5 percent above the poverty line. That certainly does qualify as “Florida’s poorest schoolchildren.”

The Scholarship Tax Credit Law Saves Money

Blanton then makes the same error as the Sun-Sentinel by misreading the legislature’s moot fiscal analysis regarding a dead bill:

And, in terms of saving the state money, apparently Tuthill is unaware of the Legislature's own analysis showing that, if left unchecked, the program soon will create a financial deficit for the state.

In reality, the report found that “under both current and proposed law, the [Florida Education Finance Program] savings from the program are expected to exceed the revenue losses due to tax credits through FY 2018-19, though the net savings are expected to be lower as a result.” Florida’s scholarship tax credit law would save less money had the legislation passed (which it did not), but the state would still save money. Nowhere in that analysis does the legislature’s report state, as Blanton claims it does, that it will “create a financial deficit.”

Scholarship Students Perform Well Academically

Blanton further claims that there is “absolutely no way to measure whether these voucher [sic] schools are providing the high quality education guaranteed by our state constitution.”

In fact, Florida’s scholarship students take nationally norm-referenced exams and perform about average nationally, despite being among the most disadvantaged students. Moreover, previous apples-to-apples comparisons with Florida’s public schools students showed that the scholarship students performed as well or better.

The Sun-Sentinel Should Correct the Record

Not only has the Sun-Sentinel refused to correct its errors, it has compounded them by running a second op-ed full of the same errors. The first time was sloppy journalism. The second time is even less forgivable.

The Sun-Sentinel now owes its readers two retractions and a plethora of corrections. But since the editors of the Sun-Sentinel have displayed—at best—a careless disregard for the truth, readers shouldn’t hold their breath.