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Other Myths About School Choice Scholarships

WHY SHOULD I WAIT...

For years critics have argued that voucher programs divert tax dollars from public schools to “unaccountable” private schools. That’s been a popular talking point for opponents of Florida’s new Family Empowerment Scholarship:

There are no systems in place for accountability.” “ A wild west of unregulated, unaccountable voucher schools.” “ Tens of millions of public dollars each year for primarily religious private schools that have no public accountability.”

In truth, voucher schools are subject to two forms of accountability: the top-down regulatory model, albeit with a lighter touch than what public schools receive; and the kind you get from the bottom-up through parental choice, something few public schools face.

Florida devotes nearly 12,000 words of regulations governing the its Tax Credit Scholarship. Among them: Schools must provide parents information about teacher qualifications; test students in grades 3-10 in reading and math on state-approved national norm referenced tests; and conduct annual financial reports if the school receives more than $250,000 from any scholarship source. Schools are also subjected to health, safety, fire and building occupancy inspections. Starting in 2019-20, new participating schools must be inspected by the DOE before accepting any scholarship students. Read more here.

In addition, parents who are dissatisfied with their private schools can vote with their feet and take their scholarship students elsewhere. That represents the most immediate and direct form of accountability: If the schools can’t deliver, they lose students and the money that follows them. That kind of accountability is in short supply in district schools, particularly in low-income areas, where parents generally can’t afford to move to a neighborhood with a better school or pay tuition for a private school.

Myth Buster #1

Scholarships are re-segregating schools

No study to date has linked the tax credit scholarship to patterns of re-segregation in Florida’s public schools. A 2017 report by the Le Roy Collins Institute at Florida State noted “school segregation in Florida today is strongly related to residential patterns of urbanization and suburbanization in the state ... ” In other states where vouchers and racial segregation have been studied the results are mixed. In Louisiana, for example, 82 percent of public schools and 45 percent of private schools became more racially integrated as a result of the state’s voucher program. Generally, voucher programs that focus on low-income students or students in struggling public schools tend to reduce racial segregation as the vast majority of program beneficiaries are racial minorities.

Myth Buster #2

More than half of all scholarship students return to public schools within two years.

A recent Urban Institute report noted 58 percent of scholarship students used the scholarship two years or less during the period studied, 2003 to 2011. This was during the early years of the program, when the scholarship value was far less than it is today, and there were far fewer private schools participating. Thankfully, the scholarship amount has increased in recent years, and been tiered to reflect higher tuition in middle and high schools, which should ensure more parents can continue to use it. More recent data shows the percentage of students using the scholarship two or fewer years has dropped to 30 percent.

Scholarship students leave the program for any number of reasons, but surveys suggest few do so because their parents are dissatisfied. A 2009 survey by the Friedman Foundation (now EdChoice) found 80 percent of scholarship parents were “very satisfied” with the academic progress their children were making in their current private schools, compared to 4 percent in their previous public schools. A more recent survey found similarly high rates of parental satisfaction.

Myth Buster #3

Donations and demand for scholarships are down

Enrollment dropped from an all time high and fundraising slowed from a rapid 14 percent increase to a still impressive 10 percent increase.

Statewide, donation pledges increased from $639 million in 2017-18 to $704 million in 2018-19. The wait list is due to several factors, including increased scholarship values, a higher rate of students using higher-valued scholarships in middle and high schools, and fundraising that continues to grow, but at a slower rate than in previous years. For more details on the wait list and the slow down in fundraising, go here.

So far this school year, more than 170,000 students have started applications for this fall, and more than 90,000 have been verified as being eligible for scholarships. That last figure is 20,000 ahead of last year’s pace, with more than two months left before school starts. Some critics have suggested a drop in the number of scholarship students this year – the first drop in 14 years – is a sign of declining demand. But the program has a wait list of nearly 13,000 students, which is why lawmakers are proposing new scholarships.

 

Myth Buster #4

Private schools are subject to zero accountability

You hear that a lot, in stories like this one, and this one, and this one. But the truth is, Florida has for years if not decades spent billions of dollars in state funding to pay for tuition at private and faith-based schools. Florida provides state-funded scholarships so students can attend private and often faith-based pre-schools ( Voluntary Prekindergarten); private and often faith-based K-12 schools ( McKay Scholarships and Gardiner Scholarships); and private and often faith-based colleges and universities ( Bright Futures Scholarships and Effective Access to Student Education grants, previously known as the Florida Resident Access Grant.) When the Florida Supreme Court ruled the $2.9 million Opportunity Scholarship unconstitutional in 2006, it refused to strike down the McKay Scholarship, which cost the state $119 the following year and is now a $200-million-a-year program. Like the new Family Empowerment Scholarship, the McKay Scholarship is directly funded out of the Florida Education Finance Program, which the Legislature uses to allocate money to school districts. Read more here.

Myth Buster #5

The new voucher program is not unprecedented

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