Survey shows Florida tax credit scholarships broaden choices for low income families

A pro-choice organization sought the opinions of Step Up For Students scholarship recipients.
Thousands of Floridians rally in Tallahassee for school choice in 2010. [Step Up For Students]
Thousands of Floridians rally in Tallahassee for school choice in 2010. [Step Up For Students]
Published Oct. 30, 2018|Updated Oct. 30, 2018

A newly released survey of Florida tax credit scholarship recipients indicates the program greatly expanded the education options for the low income families the program serves.

The report, conducted by the school choice advocacy group EdChoice, shows that fewer than 21 percent of the families would still send their children to private schools if the scholarship program did not exist. Those with relatively lower affluence were more likely to enroll their children in their neighborhood district school than to home school or avail themselves of other opportunities.

"These responses indicate that the program is expanding educational
opportunity to those who could not otherwise afford private school," the report states.

That scenario was similar for families that withdrew from the scholarship program. Fewer than 20 percent remained in a private school.

The number of withdrawals among respondents was 3 percent. Correspondingly, the satisfaction rate for the schools the families picked was well over 90 percent.

What were they seeking in those schools? Not necessarily the improved academics or student safety that some of the most vocal proponents speak about when touting the need for added choices.

According to the survey, "the only factors to be selected by a majority of parents of scholarship recipients were religious environment/instruction (66%) and morals/character/values instruction (52%)."

The other factors in choosing a school were named by only about a third of the respondents, or fewer. They included safe environment (39%), academic reputation (34%), small classes (31%), small school (21%), and close to home and/or work (19%).

The authors note that transportation remains a stumbling block for many families seeking a different school. Most private schools do not offer busing, making it difficult for some parents to get their children to somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The authors recommend that lawmakers seek ways to ensure that transportation barriers to not hinder choices, suggesting the scholarships be used for transportation costs as well as tuition. That was allowed until 2008.

In 2017-18, 108,098 low-income children — their average family income is $25,740 a year — received $641 million in scholarships to attend one of 1,818 participating private schools. Some Republican lawmakers have pushed to expand the program, while opponents have criticized the model as an attempt to demonize and privatize public education.

The program gives state tax credits to corporations that donate to the scholarship fund. Court challenges to the model, which is the nation's largest, so far have failed.

"All families should have the opportunity to choose the learning environment that's the right fit for their child, regardless of their income," the authors write. "Given the success of the scholarship program, policymakers should consider expanding it so that all children can benefit from being in the learning environment that's right for them."

Read Surveying Florida Scholarship Families for more details.