Research & Commentary: Florida on Verge of Universal Education Choice

Published February 2, 2023

Legislation in the Florida House of Representatives would convert the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship voucher program into a universal education savings account (ESA) program open to all Sunshine State families.

These accounts would cover tuition, fees, and curricula for eligible children at private and parochial schools, as well as tutoring services, transportation costs, textbooks, supplemental course materials, and educational therapies. Funds could also be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT or ACT, or AP examinations. Priority for scholarships would go to children in foster care of whose family household income does not exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

Copious empirical research on school choice programs such as ESAs makes clear these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances, and that these programs improve academic performance and attainment and deliver a quality education at lower cost than traditional public schools.

To cite just one example, a 2022 analysis by EdChoice examined three of Florida’s five current school choice programs, the Gardiner Scholarship Program, which has been rolled into the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program—and found these programs have saved Sunshine State taxpayers between $2.8-$6.2 billion through Fiscal Year 2018. This works out to a savings of between $2,600 and $5,737 per each student participating in these programs. Because of the age of the program, the report notes that the “fiscal effects are likely closer to the upper bound estimate.”

Additionally, education choice benefits public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. Research also shows students at private schools are 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 improve the mental health of participating students.

Florida’s choice programs have been a great success for participating students. A 2019 study from the Urban Institute, expanding on previous research, found Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (TCS) students participating in the program for at least four years are 43 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college and 20 percent more likely to graduate than their public school peers. Meanwhile, a March 2021 study from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas also showed that low-income students and students with disabilities had “had demonstrated dramatic [academic] gains compared to their similarly-disadvantaged peers nationally” due to the state’s education choice programs.

Further, a 2020 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found TCS also provides serious benefits for the state’s public school students. These students attending public schools who faced more competition from private schools utilizing the TCS program saw their test scores and suspension rates improve and their absenteeism decrease, with students from “comparatively lower socioeconomic background(s)” being “most positively affected.”

Unfortunately, Florida’s public schools are habitually failing the state’s children. In 2022, only 41 percent of public school fourth-graders and 23 percent of eighth-graders tested “proficient” to grade level in mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) examination, colloquially known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” Just 39 percent of fourth-graders and 29 percent of eighth-graders tested “proficient” in reading. Essentially, and embarrassingly, the state’s public schools are failing to educate roughly 7 out of 10 Florida children to grade-level proficiency in reading and math by the time they are about to start high school.

It is probably these dismal results, and also because teacher unions have repeatedly played politics with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic in direct conflict with students’ best interests, that education choice programs like ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. Polling by EdChoice released in December 2022 found 72 percent support for ESA programs, for example, among the general public and 77 percent among current school parents. These findings are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s eighth-annual National School Choice Poll, released in March 2022, which found 77 percent support for ESA programs.

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. There has not been a time when providing these opportunities has been more urgent and more needed than right now. Legislators should recognize that and allow families as many options as possible to get their children the education they need and deserve.

The following documents provide more information about ESAs and education choice.

Fiscal Effects of School Choice
This EdChoice analysis of 40 private educational choice programs in 19 states plus D.C. summarizes the facts and evidence on the fiscal effects of educational choice programs across the United States and finds they have provided up to $28.3 billion in net fiscal savings to state and local taxpayers through Fiscal Year 2018. The programs in the analysis include three education savings accounts programs (ESAs), 19 school voucher programs, and 18 tax-credit scholarship programs.

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.

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.

Effects of Scaling Up Private School Choice Programs on Public School Students
This working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds the continued expansion of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program produced modestly larger benefits for students attending public schools that had a larger initial degree of private school options, measured prior to the introduction of the program. These benefits include higher standardized test scores and lower absenteeism and suspension rates. Effects are particularly pronounced for lower-income students.

The Effects of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program on College Enrollment and Graduation: An Update
In this update to a 2017 Urban Institute study, authors Matthew Chingos, Tomas Monarrez, and Daniel Kuehn find students participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program are 99 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and 56 percent more likely to graduate, than their public school peers.

The Effects of Statewide Private School Choice on College Enrollment and Graduation: Evidence from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program
This study from Urban Institute scholars Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn shows Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program boosted college enrollment for participating students by 15 percent, with students enrolled in the program for four or more years seeing a 46 percent hike.

The 123s of School Choice (2020 Edition)
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

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.

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.

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.

Child Safety Accounts: Protecting Our Children through Parental Freedom
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

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.

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