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League of Women Voters talk details probe into Florida's school voucher program

classroom
Brynn Anderson
/
AP
A student raises their hand in a classroom.

The League of Women Voters of Florida recently conducted a study of the state's School Voucher programs and that will be the subject of an upcoming talk to be held via Zoom Thursday.

Hosted by the Pensacola Bay Area chapter, the presentation is titled “Are Voucher Scholarships Being Exploited.”

“We set out to find exactly how this is all being funded and what kind of accountability and transparency is involved,” explained program speaker Dr. Sarah Butzin, who goes by Sally.

Butzin is a retired educator, currently serving as president of the League of Women Voters of Tallahassee. She also serves on the Education Issues Task Force for the state organization, which in March released an in-depth review of how direct and in-direct state funds are being used to pay for Florida’s School Voucher programs, known as Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.

“What we found is that there’s very little transparency. And, even worse, there’s very little accountability,” she proclaimed. “In essence, the state, and the Department of Education, has completely turned over this entire program to a private organization and they are the ones that determine the results and how the money is used.”

For the study, the League focused on the non-profit Step Up for Students, one of two Scholarship Funding Organizations authorized to administer school choice scholarship programs in Florida. It also awards and manages tax credit scholarships for the state of Alabama.

Ron DeSantis
Wilfredo Lee
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seated, celebrates after having signed a bill on May 11, 2021, that increases eligibility to attend private schools at public expense, during a ceremony at St. John the Apostle School in Hialeah, Florida.

According to Forbes, Step Up for Students and Subsidiaries had nearly $700 million ($697,363,075) in total assets in 2019, making it the 21st largest charity in the United States.

“To put it into perspective, we’re talking about a very large organization, right up there with the American Cancer Society and United Way. So, this is a very large and sophisticated operation.”

The League’s Step Up for Students Preliminary Investigative Report studied the operations of the organization, which was founded by venture capitalist and big political donor John Kirtley in 2002, a year after then Gov. Jeb Bush established the first Florida Tax Credit voucher program.

The report refers to the Jacksonville-based Step Up for Students, with its 265 employees and $18 million payroll, as a money management/marketing firm operating as a charity.

“The way this all works is that every voucher, what they call scholarships, the organization Step up for Students gets two to three percent of each one for their operating expenses and for them to use for marketing and promotional purposes, and also promoting them with the corporations and businesses to encourage them to divert their taxes to the Step Up organization to use for vouchers rather than paying what they owe to the state, which is going to operate our government, as well as our public schools.”

Dr. Butzin points out that over 60% of Florida’s voucher scholarships go to religious schools, which raises questions about constitutionality and the separation of church and state. To date, she says the state has gotten around legal challenges by forming a private organization to distribute the funds and letting corporations make direct contributions.

“However, let me add that this year, for the first time, the legislation that passed last session that is now in effect for this school year, for the first time they are drawing down money from our general revenue fund to go to these vouchers,” she said.

Sally Butzin.jpeg
Dr. Sarah (Sally) Butzin is president of the Tallahassee League of Women Voters.

“So, this will be an interesting question as to whether somebody will bring a lawsuit like they did before because now it’s clearly not only these tax credits that are funding it.”

Specifically, the voucher expansion allocates $200 million in general revenue funding to two voucher programs, one covering special needs students. The other is for students from traditionally low-income households, with the threshold now raised to $100,000 for a family of four. Butzin is troubled by provisions that eventually remove income requirements and convert the scholarships into Educational Savings Accounts.

“That’s what they call them, an ESA. And, think of it like your own debit card. So, if you qualify for one of these, you get an account which you can then spend on pretty much anything related to education and that’s what we’re wondering is how is anybody going to track all this.”

According to Butzin, Florida residents should all be concerned about the erosion of the public school system, with this move toward a “parallel,” parent-controlled school system, much like a century ago. And, she adds that many of the private schools receiving what she believes is public money don’t have the same academic standards, with no certified teachers and no standards for curriculum and testing.

Dr. Butzin says their goal in conducting the review of Step Up for Students was to “peel back the onion” to let the public see what’s going on and to encourage further probing into the voucher issue.

“We call this a preliminary investigative report because our hope is that some major news organization or some investigative journalist will take it and dig deeper than we could.”

The full report is available on the League of Women Voters of Florida website.

Dr. Butzin’s talk will be held via Zoom Thursday evening at 6. To register, go online to the LWV Pensacola Bay Area Chapter website.