McKay Scholarships Are Tops Among School Choice Programs

Published April 1, 2004

In a new study that compares the different features of school choice programs from across the nation, Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities is the top-ranked plan. Despite being much better known, the voucher programs operating in the cities of Milwaukee and Cleveland are ranked relatively low in the study, which is authored by Robert C. Enlow, executive director of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.

Enlow ranks 13 programs around the nation–seven voucher programs and six tax-credit programs–according to criteria relating to the eligibility of students, the strength of increased purchasing power available through the program, and the eligibility of schools to participate.

In broad terms, the ranking system prizes choice programs with the following features:

  • broad over narrow student eligibility pools;
  • large or privately set dollar amounts over small or government-capped amounts; and
  • few regulations or restrictions on private school participation.

“In all cases, the gold standard used for grading voucher programs reflects Milton Friedman’s vision of a system of education where all students, regardless of income or any other criteria, are able to use 100 percent of the state and local funds to attend public and private schools that are largely free from government interference,” Enlow writes.

The author is careful to note that all of these programs are improvements over the existing system since they provide more educational freedom. He also recognizes the political realities involved in passing a choice program, most notably that defenders of the status quo constantly push for programs with limited eligibility, small subsidies, and onerous restrictions on private schools as a fallback position from stopping school choice proposals completely.

The results of the ranking are shown in Figure 1. Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program ranks as the study’s top school choice program, with a grade of A-, and Iowa’s Tax Credit program is the lowest-scoring, with a grade of C-.

While the McKay Scholarship Program limits eligibility to students with disabilities attending public schools, this represents an eligibility pool of 350,000 students. McKay Scholarship recipients receive vouchers to attend another public or private school of their choice with a scholarship equivalent to the funds that would have been spent on their education in the public school setting. The combination that puts the McKay program at the top of the rankings is:

  • a large eligibility pool;
  • vouchers with good purchasing power; and
  • relatively light regulations on private schools.

Arizona’s Scholarship Tax Credit ranks second. Arizona legislators pioneered the use of an individual scholarship tax credit as a method for creating school choice in 1997. The Arizona legislation created a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for individual donations to private charities providing financial assistance to students attending private schools. Every K-12 student in the state is eligible to receive assistance, with few regulations for private schools.

The Arizona model inspired two later scholarship programs in Pennsylvania (ranked 3rd) and Florida (ranked 7th), both of which created tax credits for corporations making donations to private charities offering tuition assistance to students.

The nation’s oldest voucher programs, in Vermont and Maine, rank 4th and 5th respectively. For more than a century, both of these programs have provided vouchers to students in small towns that do not have local public schools for their grade levels. Students may redeem the vouchers at public schools in nearby towns or at nonreligious private schools in state or even out of state. Although the programs impose no academic or income restrictions, both restrict the vouchers to a small number of students. Each program gets a grade of B.

In results sure to surprise many, the Milwaukee and Cleveland voucher programs ranked relatively low. Such rankings do not detract from the huge roles both programs have played in the modern school choice movement–with the Milwaukee program being the first of the modern era and the Cleveland program cementing the constitutionality of the school voucher concept in the Zelman decision. The rankings instead reflect each program’s capped subsidy amounts, admission policy restrictions, and limited scope, i.e., aimed at limited populations within a single school district.

“The school choice movement must not shy away from the fact that some voucher and choice programs are better than others,” Enlow writes. Some programs are “large, generous, and inclusive,” others are “small, stingy, and restrictive.”

About the Rankings

Ranking is an inherently difficult exercise since it involves value judgments. For example, consistent with Milton Friedman’s libertarian outlook, private flexibility is viewed as an important feature in meeting the needs of individual children. As a result, Enlow gives a program an A on purchasing power if either of the two following conditions is met:

  • the amount of the voucher is equal to the full amount of money–federal, state, and local–the public schools would have spent on that child; or
  • the amount of each voucher is privately set rather than set by the state.

Others might rank these two features differently, and the study likely will prompt an examination of policy preferences and how these would affect the program rankings.

Matthew Ladner is director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Robert C. Enlow’s March 2004 report from the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, “Ranking Vouchers,” is available online at