Long ‘waiting list’ for Florida vouchers doesn’t actually exist

This belongs in the you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff category.

The short version:

Florida’s lawmakers are considering expanding a voucher-like tax credit program because, legislators keep saying, there is a huge waiting list of families who want to participate. It turns out that there is no waiting list.

The long version:

The Florida legislature has been considering legislation that would expand the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a voucher-like scheme that allows public money to be used for private school tuition but wouldn’t require much if anything in the way of accountability from schools that accept vouchers. (For example, the students wouldn’t have to take the high-stakes standardized tests required of public school students.)

The Senate bill’s sponsor, Republican Bill Galvano of Bradenton, wound up pulling the bill after stories about the lack of accountability began to spread, and he cited the accountability measures as the reason for his action. He did not mention an embarrassing video that was uncovered in which Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up for Students, which administers the tax credit program, talks about how much money his organization spends funding political campaigns. The Tampa Bay Times wrote about the video in this story, which said in part:

In the video, Step Up for Students President Doug Tuthill outlined the organization’s political strategy. He talked about the role of an affiliated political committee.

“One of the primary reasons we’ve been so successful we spend about $1 million every other cycle in local political races, which in Florida is a lot of money,” Tuthill told a group at the University of California, Berkeley. “In House races and Senate races, we’re probably the biggest spender in local races.” 

Tuthill said he and other proponents “make low-income families the face of the program.”

“We put those people in the face of Democrats and say ‘How can you deny this parent the right to educate their child in the ways that they need?’ ” he said.

Charming.

Just when people thought the expansion of the program was dead in the legislature for the year, Florida House members found a way to resurrect it by combining it with another reform bill still alive. What will happen is unclear.

But the larger point is that the expansion of the program has been pushed by Step Up For Students based on what it and supportive legislators have said is a very, very long waiting list of families who want to participate. Rep. Erik Fresen, a Republican from Miami who was one of the legislators who figured out how to keep the expansion idea alive, said at a hearing in Tallahassee about the bill that there is a waiting list of families seeking the tax credits that now stands “at 100,00 students.” During the debate about the legislation, a figure of 34,000 families on a waiting list has been thrown about, as have other figures.

Specifically citing such numbers suggests there is an actual waiting list. But, it turns out, there isn’t. After school activists and reporters asked for details about the waiting list, Step Up For Students acknowledged that, alas, it doesn’t really keep one. There aren’t any people on the waiting list because there isn’t a waiting list. Why?

Jon East, of the redefinED blog, which is published by Step Up For Students, wrote in this post:

The people who process applications at Step Up, which publishes this blog, have become so overwhelmed in recent years that they no longer wanted to give low-income families false hope. They concluded that the main reason for the waiting list was mostly for show, and they wanted no part of that.

Mostly for show? The organization has sought an expansion of the program, and legislators have cited the waiting list as a reason for funding it.

East continues:

For the current school year, 2013-14, the cap limit of $286 million has allowed Step Up to serve 59,765 low-income students. But applications were coming in so fast last spring that the processing team decided to stop taking them on June 28, about as month-and-a-half before school started. Even so, 94,104 students had already started.

That number from June is the origin of the 34,000 “waiting list” that has been asserted many times during the current debate. In reality, it’s not a waiting list, but it’s a powerful indication of demand.

Whatever the demand, it remains the case that public funding has no business being used to pay for private school tuition. That’s the bottom line.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 29