Allison Graves
By Allison Graves February 9, 2018

Attack on House Speaker Richard Corcoran, HB 7055 needs more context

The state’s largest teachers’ union released a 30-second ad, saying that the House’s massive education is taking tax dollars and giving them to private schools with no oversight.

The ad, posted on YouTube on Feb. 5 by the Florida Education Association, takes specific aim at House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who has made Florida schools a top priority in 2018.

The bill in question — HB 7055 — contains many education provisions and provides funding for the "Hope Scholarship" program, a top priority for Corcoran. The program would allow public school students who are bullied to transfer to other  private schools with discounted tuition.

"House Bill 7055 is another Tallahassee assault on our local public schools," the narrator says in a voiceover. "Political insider Richard Corcoran has a plan to divert even more of our tax dollars to unaccountable private schools."

We wondered about this claim. Does Corcoran have a plan to "divert tax dollars to unaccountable private schools?" We found there is some truth to this claim, but getting there requires a lot more context.

‘Richard Corcoran has a plan to divert even more of our tax dollars’

Florida Education Association communications director Sharon Nesvig said that the the Legislature has repeatedly increased and expanded a 2001 program known as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. HB 7055 adds a new "voucher" for a similar program, the Hope Scholarship.

Here’s how those programs work:

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship was established in 2001 under Gov. Jeb Bush in order to give scholarships to poor children to attend private schools. The program provides dollar-for-dollar income tax credits for corporations that give money to organizations that give the scholarships. The tax credit cap for the 2017-18 fiscal year is almost $700 million and has increased every fiscal year.

The Hope Scholarship is a voucher-like program that would be funded through motorists making voluntary contributions when they purchase cars. In return, car buyers would get a credit on the taxes they would normally have to pay on the purchases.

Tax credit opponents, including the Florida Education Association, argue that the money used on these credits would have been state revenue if the Legislature had not diverted it.

"Those tax dollars would have gone into general revenue and been available to fund our neighborhood schools and pay for the books, curriculum, equipment and programs our students desperately need," Nesvig said.

There is no way to know for certain that money would end up being spent on schools, but education experts agreed with the general idea.

Kevin G. Welner, the Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, said that the word "diverted" is "just about the best word choice they could have used."

"The tax payment is diverted from the state to a system that funds the private schools," he said.

It’s important to note, though, that the programs create new revenue streams. They don’t literally move money from traditional sources of public school revenue.

What about those ‘unaccountable’ private schools’?

Nesvig pointed to an Orlando Sentinel months-long investigation about Florida private schools that receive these scholarships. It found that some schools "hire teachers without college degrees, hold classes in aging strip malls and falsify fire-safety and health records. 

Experts agreed there is a huge difference in oversight, transparency, and accountability between public schools to voucher-receiving private schools. The schools do not have to hire teachers with state certification or college degrees, and they don’t have to follow the state’s academic standards.

In addition, local public schools and charter schools are evaluated every year and assigned labels based on tests and other evidence, but that accountability system does not apply to private schools that accept vouchers, however.

But the word "unaccountable" does not address all of the nuances of the situation. Although experts said they are largely ineffective, private schools that receive vouchers do have to conform to accountability laws.

"If the ad included a footnote saying that the schools are ‘subject to weak and ineffective regulatory accountability,’ they might lose the punch of the statement, but it would be on more solid footing than flat out saying that the schools are ‘unaccountable.’" Welner said.

It’s also worth noting that there has been some legislation to fix this issue.

In response to the investigation, Florida lawmakers took steps to increase accountability. SB 1756 would require private school to employ teachers who hold a bachelor's degree or higher from a "regionally or nationally accredited college or university in the United States or from a recognized college or university in another country."

Our ruling

The FEA said that "Richard Corcoran has a plan to divert even more of our tax dollars to unaccountable private schools."

This claim requires some explanation.

The plan for diverting dollars refers to the Legislature’s decision to expand the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the Hope Scholarship proposal, which is included in HB 7055. The bill does create a new funding stream, but it doesn’t literally move money from traditional sources of public school revenue.

And while there are some rules that govern private schools that receive vouchers, experts said there is a huge difference in oversight between those schools and public school.

With everything considered, we rated this claim Half True.

Our Sources

Email exchange, Florida Education Association communications director Sharon Nesvig, Feb. 7-8, 2018

Email exchange, Fred Piccolo, Corcoran spokesman, Feb. 8, 2018

Email exchange with Kevin Welner, an education professor at the University of Colorado, Feb. 8. 2018

Email exchange, Sherman Dorn, the director of Educational Leadership & Innovation at Arizona State University, Feb. 8, 2018

Email exchange, David Figlio, director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, Feb. 8, 2018

Interview, Joe Pennisi, executive director of the Florida Policy Institute, Feb. 9, 2018

National Conference of State Legislatures, Scholarship Tax Credits, accessed Feb. 8, 2018

Florida Department of Education, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, accessed Feb. 8, 2018

Office of Program Analysis and Government Accountability, The Corporate Tax Credit scholarship program saves the state dollars," December 2008

Tampa Bay Times, Vouchers for victims? Florida lawmakers debate a bill to offer scholarships to bullied students, Nov. 9, 2017

Orlando Sentinel, Schools Without Rules: An Orlando Sentinel Investigation, October 2017

Tampa Bay Times, Florida HB 7055 comes under attack in ads and adds, Feb. 5, 2018

Tampa Bay Times, Teachers’ unions say House Republican bill puts them at risk, Jan. 31, 2018

Tampa Bay Times, Should Florida private schools that take state vouchers have degreed teachers? Feb. 8, 2018

YouTube, "Drain the Swamp," Feb. 5, 2018

PolitiFact Florida, Vouchers take $3 billion out of public schools, Nan Rich says, June 19, 2014

CS/HB 7055: Education

PolitiFact North Carolina, NC Gov. Roy Cooper makes questionable claim about private school vouchers lacking accountability, Feb. 2, 2017

Florida Policy Institute, New Report Finds Shortcomings in Florida’s Scholarship Tax Credit Program, May 2017

Dunn, Joshua. "U-turn on vouchers: Florida courts uphold tax credits." Education Next, vol. 17, no. 4, 2017, p. 7. Academic OneFile. Accessed 8 Feb. 2018.

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