Let’s Talk About the “Waiting List”

During the first half of the 2019 legislative session the Florida House and Senate have both spent a significant time debating similar bills which would greatly expand vouchers for unaccountable private and religious schools. The House is poised to pass their voucher bill later this week.

One of the most often repeated talking points used by legislators, as well as Governor DeSantis is the need to reduce the “waiting list” for students who use vouchers. So, it is worth asking who is on the “waiting list” and why?

The short answer is we don’t know who or even how many students are on the waiting list.

Because the schools that accept vouchers and the corporations like Step Up for Students (SUFS) that administer them are private organizations, they are not subject to public records requests. They are under no legal obligation to provide any details about the “waiting list.”

For all we know the list doesn’t exist—or to the extent it does—the list includes students who are already attending a voucher school and are simply waiting for government assistance to help offset their tuition.

But there is some information that is publicly available, and that information suggests that the availability of vouchers is currently outstripping the demand.

By far the largest of Florida’s voucher programs is the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) program. The FTC releases quarterly reports which provide, among other things, enrollment data.

Though you wouldn’t know it from listening to Tallahassee politicians clamoring to expand the FTC, year-to-year enrollment is down almost 7% from 107,095 students in February 2018 to 100,512 students in February 2019.

 That enrollment is down almost 7% isn’t really surprising if you know that the majority of students who use a voucher do so for two years or less. And the vast majority—a full 73% of students who use a voucher—do so for three years or less.

Since over one-third of voucher recipients stay for only one year, this means the FTC program has to replace in excess of 35,000 students every year just to maintain enrollment figures.

To put that in perspective, this means FTC schools must replace a population larger than Leon County’s entire K-12 student body every single year.

Voucher schools are finding this increasingly difficult to do which is why the Legislature is now looking at expanding eligibility for vouchers to families who make $96,572 a year—more than 1.5 times the median family income.

Another source of publicly available information are tax documents that Step Up for Students must file with the IRS. On their 990 for the 2015-16 fiscal year (excerpted below), you’ll notice that over a two-year period their revenue exceeded their expenses by more than $150 million. 

SUFS ended the 2016 fiscal year with more than half a billion dollars of net assets.

In fact, Forbes magazine rankings of charitable organizations reveals that Step up for Students has greater revenue than the March for Dimes, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Wounded Warrior Project combined!

Given that information, it would seem that there is plenty of money already available to pay for vouchers; there just isn’t a demand anywhere near the level of funding that already exists. A recent survey seems to support this idea.

Florida’s voucher schools, along with voucher schools in Indiana and Louisiana recently participated in a survey by the right-wing think tank the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

One of the findings from the AEI survey is that private schools indicate there are a significant number of seats available for voucher students.  This raises a very important question:

If voucher organizations are taking in hundreds of millions of dollars more than they spend on vouchers AND  private schools indicate they have thousands of seats available for students, is there truly a waiting list? 

Admittedly, none of this disproves the existence of the oft-mentioned waiting list. But it certainly adds a much-needed perspective to the conversation. Whenever the waiting list is discussed, it must be pointed out that voucher schools have said they have plenty of open seats for additional students. At the same time, the organizations that provide vouchers are flush with cash.

There is no need to establish yet another voucher program and to expend even more public money on unaccountable private and religious schools.

We’ll leave you with one final note on voucher schools that’s not related to the “waitlist,” but is certainly relevant to the voucher discussion.

The same study that shows there are plenty of seats available also has some wonderful news for Florida’s public schools: further evidence that vouchers aren’t “saving’ students from “failure factories” as many politicians like to claim.

An overwhelming number of Florida’s private schools say students who attend on vouchers are academically prepared for their private school. 

Instead of focusing on creating a new voucher to help eliminate a “waiting list,” it is well past time for the Legislature to invest in public schools and #FundOurFuture