Research & Commentary: School Choice Now Act Is a Big Step in the Right Direction

Published July 30, 2020

Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) have introduced a bill that could bring desperately needed aid to private schools in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The School Choice Now Act (SCNA) would repurpose 10 percent of the emergency funding in the CARES Act, $7 billion, in one-time, emergency funding to scholarship granting organizations in each state. These organizations would be “authorized to use the one-time funding to provide families with direct educational assistance, including private school tuition and home-schooling expenses.” If passed, the bill would provide the single largest monetary boost for education choice in American history.

SCNA would also create $5 billion in annual funding for state-level tax-credit scholarship (TCS) programs, which allow qualifying families to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools. TCS funds can also be used for traditional public schools or public charter schools located outside of the student’s school district. TCS funds are provided by donors, who, in return, receive tax credits. SCNA’s tax-credit match would be dollar-for-dollar.

Currently, with 23 different programs in 18 states and more than 1.2 million scholarships granted, TCS programs are the most popular form of private school choice in the country. Even better, they provide several education benefits to participating students while doing so at a lower cost than public schools. A study released in October 2016 by EdChoice “estimates the fiscal effects” of 10 of the nation’s 23 TCS programs (comprising 93 percent of all awarded TCS scholarships). The study found TCS programs have saved “state governments, state and local taxpayers, and school districts” $1.7 billion to $3.4 billion through 2014. In other words, TCS programs saved anywhere from $1,750 to $3,000 per student. The savings in the 2013–14 school year alone (the last year available for study) ranged from $320 million to $580 million.

2019 study from the Urban Institute, expanding on previous research, found TCS students participating in Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest education choice program with more than 108,000 students enrolled, for at least four years are 99 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college and 56 percent more likely to graduate than their public school peers.

Further, a 2020 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found Florida’s program 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 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.”

Copious other empirical research on tax-credit scholarships and other school choice programs has shown 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 improve the mental health of participating students.

No wonder these programs are so broadly popular. The results of EdChoice’s seventh annual Schooling in America survey, released in October 2019, found 68 percent of respondents in favor of TCS programs, up 2 percentage points from 2018. Support for TCS programs also in the American Federation for Children’s sixth-annual National School Choice Poll, released in January 2020, reached a similar 65 percent.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a unique and highly unusual circumstance that has already closed more than 100 private schools across the country, putting more than 16,000 children in need of a new schooling option. If just 10 percent of private school students are forced to attend a public school this fall, states would have to come up with another $6.7 billion in extra funding to serve those students.

The School Choice Now Act would ensure that private schools remain a central component of our nation’s educational ecosystem for decades. It would signal the beginning of a new era for a nation that has for too long resisted direct involvement in creating educational opportunity for all students. The goal of public education in the United States 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 that meets their unique needs and circumstances.

The following documents provide more information about education choice.

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.

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 Tax Credit Scholarship Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money?
In this audit, EdChoice Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis Martin Lueken updates previous work examining the fiscal effects of private school choice programs on state governments, state and local taxpayers, and school districts. Lueken’s report analyzes savings from tax credit scholarship programs, which allow individuals and businesses to reduce their state tax liability by making a private donation to a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships for children to attend private schools of their choice. This audit looks at 10 tax credit scholarship programs operating in seven states between 1997 and 2014. These 10 programs serve 93 percent of all students participating in tax credit scholarship programs nationwide.

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.

2019 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Busing, Technology, and School Choice
This annual survey from EdChoice reports polling results based on a nationally representative sample of the general public, with more robust samples of parents, current public school teachers, Millennials and Generation Z than in previous editions. The survey asks standard questions about schooling experiences and educational choice reforms, as well as hot-button K–12 subjects that seem to polarize lawmakers and advocates, including inter-district busing, teacher protests and children’s use of technology.

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.


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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