Research & Commentary: Popularity of Florida’s ESA Program Shows It’s Time for Universal Expansion

Published January 8, 2018

The Gardiner Scholarship Program, Florida’s education savings account (ESA) program for students with special needs, is so popular it has exhausted all funding for the 2017­–18 school year. Already the largest ESA program in the country (based on enrollment), there are now roughly 10,150 students receiving a scholarship. The state legislature appropriated $107.4 million for the program in 2017–18.

According to Step Up For Students, the largest of the state-approved nonprofit organizations that helps administer the program, there are another 1,270 students who have been approved for a scholarship but will not be able to receive their money due to a lack of funding. These students will be placed on a waiting list and will have first priority for any increase in funding for the 2018–19 school year.

“We have definitely exhausted every last dollar, every last penny,” Step Up for Students’ Vice President of Operations, Gina Lynch, told redefinEd. “There is healthy demand for the program.”

The popularity of ESAs in the Sunshine State means the time has arrived for the state to expand on the success of the Gardiner Scholarship Program with the creation of a new universal ESA program that would be open to all K–12 students. William Mattox, director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, has suggested this scholarship program be named after Mary McLeod Bethune, a child of slaves and civil rights icon.

“Adopting a Bethune Scholarship would give every Florida child a K-12 education tailored to meet his or her unique needs,” Mattox concluded in an article he wrote about the proposed scholarship program. “It would pay tribute to a courageous Florida educator and carry forward her faith-informed belief in each child’s unique worth and dignity. More than anything, adopting a Bethune Scholarship would ensure that every child in the state of Florida – every child – has the opportunity to receive a K-12 education tailored to his or her unique needs, interests, aptitudes, and learning style.”

The overwhelming majority of the available empirical evidence makes it clear educational choice offers families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires, and it does so at a lower cost while benefitting public school students and taxpayers. Just as important, education choice programs are broadly popular because they allow parents to exercise their fundamental right to direct the education of their children.

ESA programs are not a silver-bullet solution to every problem plaguing Florida’s school system, but they certainly allow families much greater opportunities to meet each child’s particular education needs. The goal of public education in the Sunshine State 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 about education savings accounts and school choice.

Let’s Honor Bethune with a New K–12 Scholarship Program
This Policy Brief from William Mattox of the James Madison Institute calls for a universal K–12 scholarship program, which he suggests should be named after the historic Florida educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune. Mattox brings to light the educational principles articulated by Bethune and how they underscore the need for a scholarship program that allows every Florida parent to help his or her children receive the education best suited to his or her learning abilities and needs.

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.

2017 Schooling in America: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent Experiences, School Choice, and the Role of the Federal Government
This annual EdChoice survey, 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 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.

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.

Recalibrating Accountability: Education Savings Accounts as Vehicles of Choice and Innovation
This Special Report from The Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation explores how education savings accounts expand educational opportunities and hold education providers directly accountable to parents. The report also identifies several common types of regulations that can undermine the effectiveness of the program and how they can be avoided.


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 John Nothdurft, Heartland’s director of government relations, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.