Research & Commentary: Family Empowerment Scholarships Would Be Another Welcome Florida School Choice Program

Published March 8, 2019

A proposal in the Florida Senate would establish the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, a voucher program for low-income students that seeks to eliminate the waiting list for the state’s highly popular Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest school choice program (based on participation).

Beginning with the 2019–20 school year, the program would be open to students from families whose household income levels are below 260 percent of the federal poverty level. Voucher levels would equal 95 percent of the state district average per-pupil funding. The number of vouchers would be capped at 15,000 during the first year. After the first year, “the number of students participating in the scholarship program under this section may increase in accordance with the percentage increase in the state’s public school student enrollment.”

Copious empirical research on vouchers and other school choice programs finds these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. 

Students at private schools are also less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs such as education savings accounts (ESAs) improve the mental health of participating students.

Furthermore, a recent EdChoice audit of 16 voucher programs across the United States found these programs have “generated cumulative net savings to state and local budgets” of $3.2 billion. This equates to $3,400 saved per child enrolled in school voucher programs. In fiscal year 2015 alone, these programs generated more than $408 million in total savings. In Florida, the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, a special-needs voucher enacted in 1999 and with more than 29,000 participating students, has saved Sunshine State taxpayers a cumulative $1.5 billion, or $5,500 per child enrolled.

It is probably for these reasons that vouchers and other school choice programs are increasingly more popular with Florida parents. A February 2019 survey of Florida voters by the Foundation for Excellence in Education found 55 percent of respondents think the state should have a universal education savings account program where all students, regardless of income level, should be eligible. Half of Florida private school leaders plan on expanding seating capacity over the next five years, totaling around 30,000 more available seats.

These results in Florida are backed up by findings from across the country. According to a 2018 survey from Education Next, the majority of Americans are in favor of school vouchers. The survey revealed 54 percent of Americans support a universal school voucher program. The 54 percent support for vouchers is a 9 percentage point increase from the 2017 survey results. Furthermore, 67 percent of Hispanics, 53 percent of blacks, and 47 percent of Democrats said they support school vouchers. Disapproval of vouchers dropped to 31 percent overall. 

EdChoice’s 2018 Schooling in America survey produced similar results: Sixty-four percent of respondents said they support voucher programs. This includes 70 percent of black respondents, 67 percent of Hispanics, and 65 percent of respondents with household incomes under $40,000.

The American Federation for Children’s Annual School Choice Survey for 2019 also found a majority of Americans, 53 percent, support vouchers.

With more than 140,000 children making use of the state’s four current school choice programs, Florida is the national leader in school choice. Sunshine State parents are familiar with the concept of these programs, as well as the benefits they entail to children. They are ready for the expansion of these programs, or the addition of new programs. Enacting Family Empowerment Scholarships would ensure Florida stays at the cutting edge of the school choice movement.

The goal of public education in Florida today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information on voucher programs and school choice.

Exploring Florida’s Private Education Sector
This first-of-its-kind survey of Florida private school leaders by EdChoice and the Foundation for Excellence in Education finds private schools in Florida are affordable, they have the capacity to serve many more students, and capacity could be further expanded if more tuition assistance were to be made available to families.

Fiscal Effects of School Vouchers: Examining the Savings and Costs of America’s Private School Voucher Programs
In this EdChoice study, Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis Martin F. Lueken examined the fiscal impact of voucher programs across America—from their inception through fiscal year 2015—to determine whether they generated costs or savings for state and local taxpayers. Lueken found these programs generated cumulative net savings to state and local budgets of $3.2 billion. This represents a $3,400 savings per voucher recipient.

Surveying Florida Scholarship Families: Experiences and Satisfaction with Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarship Program
This EdChoice survey authored by Jason Bedrick and Lindsey Burke explores the preferences and experiences of parents and guardians of Florida children using the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship Program. As the largest-ever survey of participants in a private school choice program, it represents some of the strongest evidence to date of the views and educational priorities of parents exercising private school choice.

The School Voucher Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money?
This report by Jeff Spalding of EdChoice provides a program-for-program breakdown of school voucher costs and savings. On the whole, Spalding says these programs have provided a cumulative savings of $1.3 billion since 2007, or roughly $3,400 per pupil.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

2018 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent and Teacher Experiences, Accountability, and School Choice
This annual survey from EdChoice, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Lindsey Stroud, a state government relations manager at The Heartland Institute, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.