Due to legislation passed earlier this year, approximately 10,000 more low-income Florida students are attending private schools on tax-credit-funded private scholarships.
After the program’s waiting list reached 10,000, Florida increased the program’s cap from $140 million to $229 million.
Lawmakers also decided every year the amount credited reaches at least 90 percent of the cap allowance, the cap will automatically increase by 25 percent the following year.
Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed the bill in March.
The Step Up for Students (SUFS) tax credit program lets citizens receive tax credits on Florida returns for SUFS donations.
Last year, SUFS served 40,248 students in 1,216 schools, according to Jon East, the program’s vice president for policy and public affairs.
“It’s the fastest growing, largest education tax credit program in the country. There’s very good evidence that it’s having a positive impact on the achievement of students in public schools,” said Adam Schaeffer, education policy analyst for the Cato Institute.
This year the program will serve an estimated 50,000 students, East said. More than 1,400 private schools participate.
Because most private school tuition is lower than government per-pupil spending, SUFS will save Florida taxpayers about $57.9 million in 2012-2013, East said.
Improving Public Schools
Tax credit and voucher programs improve public schools, said Matthew Ladner, a senior adviser to the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education.
“There’s this myth that school choice opponents promote, that if there’s competition, it will lead to decline and drain money from public schools and all this sort of thing,” Ladner said. “The Step Up for Students program proved that this is a simplistic analysis, at best.”
When public school officials know parents can easily send their children elsewhere, they are more likely to listen to parents and improve, Ladner said.
“Giving children options does lead to improved outcomes in school districts. It’s not destructive to school districts. It’s actually healthy,” he said.
Attracting ‘Desperate Students’
Generally, the lowest-performing, low-income students choose to leave public schools, East said.
“For a lot of people, that’s counterintuitive,” he said. “What we’ve found is the desperate students are the ones looking for other options.”
Students in the program have kept up with national averages, East said. “That’s essentially saying students are gaining a year’s worth of knowledge within a year.”
This is significant, he said, because students who struggle academically usually fall further behind.
About 2.6 million students attend Florida public schools. About 1.4 million qualify for the scholarships.
One vs. Many Sponsors
Florida’s program allows just one scholarship organization.
“That’s one of the failings of the Florida program. It’s entirely centralized—there’s a single scholarship organization, and they cannot discriminate between schools, even if they think that school is performing inadequately,” Schaeffer said.
Either approach has benefits and disadvantages, Ladner said. He sits on the Arizona School Choice Trust board, which also provides tax-credit scholarships. The state has more than 50 different scholarship groups.
“Some donors are especially motivated to help Jewish schools, for instance, or Catholic schools,” he said.
But giving parents the choice in the first place is most important, Ladner said.
“A lot of us who were fortunate enough to have advantages carefully selected our house based on what school it’s zoned for. Low-income kids don’t have those kinds of options, so it’s a way to help them exercise that kind of choice,” he said.
Bipartisan support for the program has grown, East said.
“In 2010 we had the support of nearly half the Democrats, the majority of the black caucus, and almost the entire Hispanic caucus,” East said. “We’re into our eleventh year, and we’re seeing a growing realization that this is not an ‘us versus them’ kind of thing. This is not public versus private. This is public education more broadly defined, trying to offer low-income kids better learning options they otherwise wouldn’t have had.”
Choice proponents don’t argue private schools are better but simply that they offer different options that benefit needy children, East said.
“People should support this program whether they’re liberals, conservatives, libertarians, vegetarians,” Ladner said.
Image by the National Assembly for Wales.