The nation’s largest private school choice program is effective, popular, and money-saving. And yet, it could be on the chopping block.
The fate of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves more than 107,000 low-income students, is being threatened by litigation and political uncertainty. Before taking any drastic measures, policymakers should listen to the families benefiting from the scholarships.
EdChoice’s newly released survey of Florida scholarship families (the largest ever conducted of participants in a school choice program)—combined with research showing that the scholarships improve outcomes and save money—show why the scholarship program deserves to be expanded, not eliminated.
Enacted in 2001, the program offers tax credits to corporate donors to encourage contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations, such as Step Up for Students, which help disadvantaged children gain access to schools that are the right fit for them.
The scholarships are benefiting some of the most disadvantaged students in the state. During the 2017–18 academic year, the scholarship families’ average household income was $25,362, just 8.2 percent above the federal poverty level after adjusting for family size. More than half of the scholarship students live with one parent and three-quarters are non-white. Moreover, the state-mandated annual reports have consistently found that, far from “creaming,” the scholarship program attracts students who score lower on standardized exams than their demographic peers before entering the program. Yet after receiving a scholarship, these students perform at the national average on standardized tests, outscoring their demographic peers.
In the new survey, nine out of 10 parents expressed satisfaction with the school their child attends using a scholarship. They’re right to be happy. Not only are the scholarship students performing better, a 2017 study by the Urban Institute found that the scholarship program boosted college enrollment rates by about 15 percent. The benefit of the scholarships increased the longer a student participated in the program. Students who had used scholarships for four or more years were as much as 46 percent more likely to enroll in college than non-participating students.
But what parents desire most out of their child’s school is something that district schools generally will not—or cannot—provide: religious and moral instruction. When asked to list the top three factors they considered when selecting a school, the top factors were religious environment/instruction (66%) and morals/character/values instruction (52%). Even more than producing good students, parents want schools that produce students who are good.
The scholarships also appear to be having a salutary effect on parental engagement. Among survey respondents whose child was previously enrolled in a public district or charter school, most parents reported engaging in a variety of education-related activities more often after receiving a scholarship, including: communicating with teachers (77%), participating in school activities (72%), volunteering or doing community service (63%), reading to their child (57%), using an online educational resource such as Khan Academy (56%), and working on math homework with their child (52%).
Eliminating the program would mean ripping educational opportunities away from tens of thousands of children. When asked what they would do if the program did not exist, more than seven in ten said that they would have to enroll their child in some type of public school.
That means an end to the program would likely also entail a massive and costly influx of students that the district school system is ill-equipped to handle. Florida school districts currently spend about $9,000 per pupil on average. If just 70,000 of the more than 107,000 scholarship students switch to a public school, it could cost taxpayers north of $630 million—and that’s without factoring in the cost to build or acquire new facilities necessary to hold all the new students.
By contrast, the scholarship program saves money. In 2010, Florida’s nonpartisan Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimated that for every $1 in forgone revenue, state taxpayers saved $1.44 in reduced expenditures. A more recent analysis by EdChoice estimated that each scholarship student saves taxpayers between $1,122 and $1,658, or about $372 million to $550 million in cumulative savings from the program’s inception through 2013-14.
Few policies can boast a greater than 90 percent level of satisfaction. Even fewer can claim to do so while saving money. Florida’s tax-credit scholarships do both. But most importantly, they expand educational options for those who otherwise would not have many. True advocates of public education should embrace the scholarship program and the children it serves.
-Jason Bedrick and Lindsey Burke
Jason Bedrick is the director of policy at EdChoice. Lindsey Burke, PhD, is the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education. They are the authors of “Surveying Florida Scholarship Families: Experiences and Satisfaction with Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarship Program.”