Florida Policy CEO says vouchers are up as school is back in session
Sadaf Knight, CEO of the Florida Policy Institute, breaks down how the expansion of school vouchers in Florida is playing out.
Listen to the full conversation in the player above.
Talia Blake: Now that the new school year has started, how many families have taken advantage of the voucher program?
Sadaf Knight: We don't have official estimates from the Department of Education about how many vouchers have been awarded this year since the bill was signed, but we do have some unofficial numbers from Step Up For Students, which is the nonprofit that administers the vouchers. As of the end of July, there were almost 351,000 scholarships awarded and they were receiving around 2,000 student applications every single day. Again, those are unofficial estimates, or an unofficial number put out on social media, but we don't have official data from the Department of Education about how much has been gone out so far.
Talia Blake: Where is the funding coming from for this program? I'm wondering, how much has been allocated to it in the budget that was assigned for this fiscal year.
Sadaf Knight: What happened was the legislature initially estimated a pretty low cost for this voucher expansion. Over the course of the legislative session, we at FPI had put out an estimate that the total cost would be around $4 billion, given examples from other states like Arizona, where they had a huge take up rate. Tons of students who previously were not even involved in public schools who have been going to private schools taking up vouchers in that state. So based on our estimate, we estimated that it would be about $4 billion for a total cost of the vouchers plus the expansion. When all was said and done, the legislature appropriated $2 billion from the school funding formula, the FEFP for vouchers. They also added in an additional $350 million in the back of the bill, which are the sections at the end of the state budget, for any cost overruns in case there was more money that would be needed. Then on top of that, you have another one billion dollars for the tax credit scholarships that had to be used up first. So at the end of the day, they allocated about $3.35 billion total for vouchers.
Talia Blake: Do we know if that money was being taken away from anywhere else, or if this was just extra money in the reserves that they allocated to this program?
Sadaf Knight: What had been happening prior to this fiscal year was that the voucher program already was being expanded and growing significantly, and that money was coming directly from the FEFP, which funds public schools. This year Florida has had these additional revenue reserves. Over the past few years, we've seen our state budget kind of buoyed by federal funding over COVID and for other reasons. We have a lot of unallocated General Revenue in our reserves. So they were able to put in that funding toward increasing the base student allocation and funding the scholarships. The concern that we have is what's going to happen moving forward because they did not delineate in the budget the split between public school funding and the voucher cost. So what's going to happen in the future when we have a recession or some other constriction in our economy that requires budget cuts? Are they going to cut from public school budgets? Are they going to cut from vouchers? Because when hard decisions have to be made, we believe that public school funding should be preserved over the vouchers that have been expanded.
Talia Blake: Based on what you just said, that you all estimated that the cost would be upwards of $4 billion, and we're kind of seeing it get close to that based on what was allocated in the budget. I know it's kind of too early to see how this is going to play out for public schools, but based on conversations you're hearing, are they worried about not this school year, but the next school year when it comes to funding?
Sadaf Knight: Yeah, we certainly are because, like I mentioned, if there is an economic downturn and our revenues take a dip, how are we going to make sure that we're preserving funding for public schools? Florida still ranks at the bottom for so many different metrics, including teacher pay, even with the increases in teacher pay recently, that's for starting teachers. When you look at teachers overall, including veteran teachers, we're still at the bottom. So there's a lot of concerns that we have around just public school funding in general. Given this expansion of vouchers and the cost that it carries, one thing that we think about is how can we preserve public school funding in the future? And how could these revenues been used to boost public schools and ensure that there's quality education for all kids, rather than expanding it to private school vouchers for wealthy people who really don't need them?
Talia Blake: Before the voucher program was expanded, it only accounted for about 10% of the state's school budget. Based on the numbers coming out, how much do you expect that to increase this year or next?
Sadaf Knight: We anticipate that to increase pretty significantly. The take up rate like we saw in other states like Arizona was over 70-75%. It's important to note that this includes students who previously were not even engaged in the public school system. So if you have a kid who had been in private school all along, you now just get $8,000, which is a lot of money, and many people are going to take up that $8,000 to help pay for tuition. But given that there's no income limits as well, this can go to wealthy families who really don't need that $8,000 boost, but are going to take advantage of it because it's there. So like I said, given the example of other states that have expanded their voucher programs, and Arizona was really the only one that's similar to Florida but we have such a bigger school system, we anticipate that we'll see a pretty significant increase in that take up rate for vouchers.
Talia Blake: Earlier you were talking about unofficial numbers coming out and you're waiting for official numbers from the State Department of Education. Is there anything else you all are looking for when it comes to this program that is still a little bit confusing or murky?
Sadaf Knight: We do hope that the Florida Department of Education will put out official data regarding not just the number of applications statewide and by county, but also by the different scholarship programs, by students who have never been in public school before, and other characteristics so that we can understand, really, who's using them and how they're growing. But we also need to understand too, if the demand for vouchers exceeds how much they estimated in the funding for voucher, so if they get to that $3.35 billion, and there's still more applications outstanding, then what does the state do? Where does that revenue come from? And how do they handle that?