Updated study shows value of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships

Recipients are more likely to attend, complete college, the Urban Institute reports.
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 February 4
Updated February 4

On a day Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated his plans to eliminate the waiting list for one of Florida’s private-school scholarship programs, the Urban Institute issued a report detailing the successes of another.

DeSantis has made no secret of his desire to expand school choice. On Monday, he held two press briefings where he announced he had found money in the budget to fully fund all Gardiner Scholarships, which allow thousands of children with certain disabilities to attend private school or get financial support for home schooling.

“As we’ve met with people and talked about these very valuable scholarships, the fact of the matter is we have close to two thousand families who are on the waiting list,” DeSantis said, as reported by Florida Politics. “I have allocated enough funds to get rid of the wait list for Gardiner Scholarships entirely.”

The cost would approach $19 million.

The governor has suggested he would like to get rid of other scholarship waiting lists, as well. The biggest single program is Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship, which serves low-income children.

And that program shows strong promise for its recipients, according to the Urban Institute.

Researchers for the organization issued an update to their 2017 report, which showed that children who receive tax credit scholarships were more likely to attend public college in Florida than their peers in the same demographic group who remained in their neighborhood schools. (Hear our 2017 podcast interview with researcher Matt Chingos about those findings.)

In their revision, the researchers expanded their pool of participants, and were able to consider students who attended private and out-of-state institutions, as well.

The benefits were greater with the larger group, they wrote.

“We find that including data from private and out-of-state colleges yields larger positive effects of FTC participation on both college enrollment and degree attainment,” they wrote.

At the same time, they add, there could be factors that mitigate the findings: “Participants and nonparticipants could differ in unmeasured ways, such as parental engagement, family religiosity, or experiences in public school. If these unmeasured characteristics differ, on average, between the treatment and comparison groups and are associated with student outcomes, our results will be biased.”

Ron Matus, public affairs and policy director for scholarship funding organization Step Up For Students, celebrated the findings as the “single best, most compelling piece of evidence to come out about the program ... to show the academic results are good.” It joins a growing body of research supporting the value of tax credit scholarships, he said, from their lower per-student costs to educate children to their positive academic outcomes.

He suggested such information should bolster the argument in favor of school choice programs like this one.

But not everyone agrees on that point. The Florida Education Association, for one, has unsuccessfully challenged the scholarship’s legality in court and argued it pulls money away from traditional public schools.

FEA researcher Cathy Boehm said the Urban Institute data is accurate, and added, “it’s great that kids are going to college.”

But she had some questions about the interpretation, which she noted is one of a number of competing studies. Two things in particular caught Boehm’s attention: “It’s a small difference,” she said, “and it’s based on a small number of kids.”

She also observed that the results suggest the most successful scholarship students attend small private schools where fewer than a quarter of the students receive scholarships — not the larger schools with large concentrations of those children.

“There’s lots more research to do,” Boehm said.

The authors agreed on that point.

“These positive impacts of FTC participation should be interpreted in the context of increased enrollment in the program, which has expanded to include students from lower-middle-income families and more schools where most students use a scholarship,” they wrote. “How the effects of FTC participation vary across students and schools and over time is fertile ground for future research.”

Read The Effects of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program on College Enrollment and Graduation: An Update for additional details.

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