Lakeland Ledger Editorial: Tax Credit Investments: Stepping Up for Students

Published: Tuesday, May 19, 2015 at 12:01 a.m.

Over the past 14 years, nearly 500,000 low- income children in Florida have had a chance at a better education because someone was willing to invest in them. Individuals, foundations and companies, including some of America’s corporate elite, provided the fiscal underpinning for a sounder future for them via the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program — through which donors help pay tuition at a private school for these underprivileged children in exchange for a tax break.

Until Monday, it seemed the future of that program may be in doubt. The state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, and the Florida School Boards Association joined in a lawsuit last August that sought to have the program declared unconstitutional. The claim was that the Tax Credit Scholarship initiative diverted much-needed state financial resources to religious schools — a no-no under the state Constitution.

In a four-page ruling issued Monday, however, Circuit Judge George Reynolds in Tallahassee rejected that assertion, and the lawsuit itself.

Reynolds dismissed the case on the grounds that the Legislature didn’t actually divvy up tax money. In short, Reynolds declared, because the scholarships involve tax breaks — worth a total of $358 million this year — and not appropriating money that had been collected, lawmakers never decided how the funds would be spent. Along that line, the judge also said the plaintiffs could not prove the program had hurt them. Labeling such arguments “speculative,” the judge found no proof to support their claim that the tax proceeds that went uncollected would have been targeted for public education, or that the quality of public education suffered because of the tax credits.

According to the state Department of Education only 24 percent of the 69,846 students enrolled as of February — including 2,072 in Polk County — are white. Step Up for Students, one of the two groups approved by the state to manage this program, reports that 54 percent come from single-parent homes, with an average household income of $24,138 a year, or just 5 percent above the poverty level for a family of four. They also tend to be low performers academically.

Looked at from another angle, based on Step Up’s data, the scholarships educate these children at about three-quarters the cost of what public schools do, plus their presence saves the public education system more than $1.1 billion in new school construction, and subtracts students who might drag down standardized test scores.

In essence, impoverished, less academically gifted minority children who typically lack the support of a nuclear family are provided the same opportunity that many critics think is set aside only for privileged white children. Reynolds made the right decision for current students, and those who will follow them, and hopefully the union, the school boards and others who backed their allegations will now give up this misguided fight.

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