Typically, parents who homeschool their children do not receive state funding to homeschool. However, Florida’s Department of Education is spending more than $2.3 million in public taxpayer funds to support students who are being homeschooled either full-time or part-time (see Table C for more details). A Palm Beach Post analysis found 13 schools statewide accepted McKay vouchers or corporate tuition tax credits to educate at least 382 homeschoolers.32
This number could actually be much higher. Due to the lax reporting mechanisms of Florida’s voucher programs, hundreds and even thousands of eligible students can use a McKay voucher or corporate tuition tax credit voucher to be homeschooled. While the Horne/Bush accountability questionnaire does ask private schools whether they have a physical location and where the majority of their students get the bulk of their instruction, this data has not been made public. As a result, there is no real way of knowing just how many students in Florida are receiving publicly funded vouchers to be homeschooled. 33
|Table C: High Cost of Diverting Public Funds to Private, Homeschool Organizations|
|At least thirteen schools accepting McKay vouchers or corporate tuition tax credits to educate students from their homes||$2.3 million|
|State contract given to virtual schools, Connections Academy and K12, to alleviate overcrowded public schools||$4.8 million|
|Additional funding to educate 230 kindergartners and first-graders who never attended public school||$1 million|
|Grand Total: More than $8 million has been diverted from public schools to homeschool children|
According to the Post analysis, 317 McKay voucher students and 65 corporate tuition tax credit students are being homeschooled. The average McKay voucher for homeschooled students amounts to $7,245 each and the average corporate tuition tax credit voucher for such students are worth as much as $3,500 each. For the 382 homeschoolers identified by the Post analysis, the state pays $227,500.34 But, depending on the actual number of homeschoolers subsidized by the state, this cost could be much higher.
In addition to the unchecked flow of public funds to homeschools, the state recently granted two virtual schools $4.8 million to educate even more students in their homes. The two schools are Connections Academy, started by Sylvan Ventures, and K12 Inc., created by William Bennett, a former U.S. secretary of education. Bennett’s K12 school is already benefiting from the state’s largesse. The school accepts both McKay and corporate tuition tax credit vouchers, explaining to parents on its web site that: “with the FloridaChild or McKay scholarships, your child can attend for free. Most families that apply and qualify for these scholarships receive funding.”35 With a multi-million dollar state contract, K12 is poised to benefit even more handsomely than before.
The state’s $4.8 million contract with the two virtual schools establishes a pilot program which is meant to alleviate overcrowded classrooms and will provide a publicly funded education to about 1,000 students in kindergarten through grade eight. (See Table C for more details.) The two schools receive $4,800 per student, which is only about $700 less than the state’s average per-pupil cost.36 Given that virtual schools don’t have to pay for overhead costs, insurance, and transportation costs, among other things, this contract allows the two schools to net a significant profit at the expense of Florida’s taxpayers and public schools.
According to the details of the $4.8 million contract, only students enrolled in a public school the previous year are eligible for participation. However, the state Department of Education has interpreted the law in opposition to its true intent, allowing many kindergartners and first graders who have never enrolled in a public school to participate in the program.37 Critics contend that this would allow students who never intended to attend public school to receive a homeschooled education funded entirely by the state. Furthermore, instead of saving the state money by diverting enrollment from public schools, the state had to look for an additional $1 million to fund the education of some 230 kindergartners and first-graders who did not attend public school the year before.38 In January 2004, Horne asked the state’s Legislative Budget Committee to authorize the use of federal funds to make up this $1 million funding deficit.39
State Representative Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) asks: “Why were Bennett and the Sylvan Corp. awarded such lucrative contracts when our public schools are crying for more funding…This is about cronyism and not about what is best for our kids.”40 In fact, the cronyism charge rings true. William Bennett’s company reportedly lobbied Florida’s Republican-led legislature actively to approve a state-funded virtual school program. The bill was approved during last-minute state budget negotiations.41
In fact, this deal was made so quickly that even the Governor’s office seems to be unaware of exactly how the program is being implemented by Horne and his staff. This provoked Bush’s top education aide to complain: “This is the kind of information that would be really good to come first from the Department vs. a news article.” The program’s complete secrecy has once again prompted the Department of Financial Services to step in and conduct an investigation.42
Education Secretary Jim Horne recently proposed draft legislation in an attempt to tighten accountability within voucher programs. However, Horne’s proposal makes no mention of prohibiting homeschooled students from receiving state-funded voucher money. In fact, homeschool proponents and other pro-voucher advocates have actively championed the participation of homeschools in voucher programs.43 And why wouldn’t they? Given that Florida’s voucher programs are virtually unregulated, homeschoolers benefit from state funding without any of the accountability required of public schools.