Facts About Vouchers
There is no income cap whatsoever for the Florida voucher program. Any student in a “low-performing school” (defined as one that has been rated ‘F’ for two of four years based on statewide assessments) is eligible for a voucher regardless of income. Parents who can typically afford to enroll their children in private schools without state aid, can now use vouchers to effectively subsidize the tuition at private schools.
In the 2001 legislative session, the Florida House passed a bill (SCRIPT) that would have extended $3,000 vouchers to any of the 179,000 students in schools officially classified as overcrowded. Unlike the vouchers for failing schools, the SCRIPT vouchers would not be tied to the state’s accountability system, and would undermine equity by providing permanent subsidies to attend private school through high school graduation to the mostly well-to-do students living in high growth suburban areas. The bill died in committee in the Senate.13
Florida’s McKay voucher program began in one district as a pilot program in 1999-00, but was expanded statewide in the 2000-01 school year. The program requires school districts to give parents of children with disabilities the option of transferring to another public school in the district or to a private school. The only criteria for eligibility are that the student attended a public school for the previous school year, the parent is “dissatisfied with the student’s progress” in that school, and that a participating private school has accepted the student. Under McKay, state payment to a private school is either the school’s published tuition and fees, or the amount of public school funding the student would have received in the public school, whichever is less. However, the private school is not required to accept the state funds as full payment—parents are responsible for making up any difference between the state voucher and the school’s tuition. In cases where parents opt for having their child transfer to another public school in the district, transportation is provided only if the transfer also complies with the district’s own public school choice plan (if any).14
Under Florida’s law, high-performing public schools rated ‘A’ are eligible for an additional $100 per student from the state, while schools with an ‘F’ rating are not automatically given additional assistance. Following protests, state officials modified the law to allow those ‘F’-rated schools that demonstrate significant improvement to qualify for extra money. Opponents, however, still contend that the system fails to recognize the serious challenges facing high-poverty schools and primarily rewards schools in well-to-do areas and is inherently unjust. In Sarasota County in the 1999-00 school year, five elementary school teachers returned the $500 bonuses they received under Gov. Bush’s plan to protest the school’s grading system, and other schools in Sarasota and Manatee counties are redistributing some of the money they’ve received to schools that need it more.15
In both public and private voucher programs, the voucher amount is insufficient to cover tuition at many private schools. This either requires parents to make up the difference—as is the case in Cleveland—or precludes higher-tuition private schools from joining the program at all. The result is that there is no real equity for poor parents, who cannot make up the difference and still have no access to many private schools. In Florida, for example, private voucher schools must take the voucher as full payment. Those with tuition in excess of the voucher have little or no interest in accepting poor students. As the executive director of the Dade Association of Academic Non-Public Schools commented, “Most of our private schools have tuition that’s more than the vouchers would pay. Do you think a private school that charges $12,000 a year would be anxious to take a student for $4,000?”16