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State economists say a school choice expansion will cost $210M. Not everyone buys it

Trinity Catholic School, in Leon County
Anna Jones
WFSU Public Media
Trinity Catholic School, in Leon County

The state has come out with its estimate for how much a massive expansion of the state’s school choice program will cost: about $210 million. That’s far below the number put out by an independent group. So why are the numbers so far apart?

The Florida Policy Institute put out a figure a few weeks ago stating the cost of Florida’s expansion of its school voucher program would be around $4 billion. The state’s estimate is way less. When Republican Rep. Kaylee Tuck delivered the state’s figure for the cost of the voucher expansion, it was met with puzzled faces from fellow lawmakers, and a packed crowd. The first to ask the obvious question was Rep. Daniel Alvarez, R-Hillsboro.

“They’re [the Florida Policy Institute] telling us that even under conservative estimates, Florida’s Empowerment Scholarship will cost $4 billion, but when I read the analysis we’re saying it’s $209.6 million...where’s that gap?" he asked.

Education watchers have been waiting weeks to see where the state’s price tag for the measure would land.

The discrepancy between the figures lies in how the two sides are doing the math. Tuck, explaining how the state reached $209 million.

The state makes the following assumptions:

  1. Since money follows the student in Florida, when kids leave a public school—those state dollars go with them. So, on paper, it’s a wash, even though public schools will lose that money.
  2. Families will first use the corporate tax money which doesn't belong to the state, then use the state-funded dollars. So the state gets savings there.
  3. Not all students in private schools currently without a scholarship will decide to go get one.

“The institute includes all currently enrolled private school students but not all Florida private school students actually accept the scholarship," said Tuck of the major difference between the state's analysis, and the one done by the Florida Policy Institute.

However, not everyone is buying the state's math.

“ It’s nonsensical to believe that half of the families currently paying to send their children to these private schools will not apply to get this free money. Of course they will. Especially because this an ESA and they can spend it on more than just simple tuition," said Monroe County School Board member Sue Woltanski.

Woltanski believes Florida may soon run into the same financial problems that states like Arizona are having if Florida doesn’t get the math right. Arizona badly underestimated the cost of its voucher expansions, and now the programs are threatening its overall financial health to the point that that state's governor has even floated a repeal of the program.

In Florida, the state is considering allowing all school-aged children in the state to become eligible for a voucher they can use on private school tuition, home school, or other education-related services. This idea of universal school choice is a long-held goal of choice advocates and something the state has worked toward for the past 25 years. Opponents worry it’ll result in an exodus of students from public schools, irreparably crippling the system.

In Woltanski’s county “43% of the state funds are being taken back to fund these programs, and that will just get higher," she said.

What Woltanski is referring to is how the state uses school districts as a pass-through to get voucher money to the private schools. It’s not actually the district’s money, so they’re not technically losing anything. But they’re also able to see what they may have otherwise gotten had those students stayed within the public school system.

Meanwhile, the Florida Policy Institute isn’t budging on its $4 billion estimate.

“I stand by this estimate and am happy to work through it with you," said Norin Dollard, of FPI.

Her figures are based on the current costs of the program, the public school students leaving and transferring their dollars away, and all the private school families who currently don’t have scholarships, gaining access to them. That last one is a major sticking point, and it’s something even Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed concerns about. Dollard suggests lawmakers listen to the governor’s advice on that one.

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative.
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