School choice scholarships helping the most disadvantaged students

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Miami's Community Newspapers
Patrick Gibbons

It’s true private schools aren’t a panacea, as Grant Miller notes in his recent column. But it’s also true that low-income students who attend them thanks to school choice scholarships are far more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than like students in public schools, and at far less cost to Florida taxpayers.

Miller’s column, “Governor DeSantis Gets an F minus on School Vouchers,” perpetuates a few popular myths about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students.

First, he suggests the program harms students because those who leave the program and return to public schools “do worse on state tests, meaning public schools have to expend even more resources to try to get children back on track.” But the reality is scholarship students who return to public schools were doing worse on state tests to begin with.

The FTC program serves 100,512 students in 1,807 private schools throughout the state, including 23,429 students in Miami-Dade. Approximately 70 percent of the students are black or Hispanic, and 55 percent live in single-parent households. The average student lives with a family of four earning just $25,000 a year. Students entering this scholarship program tend to be far more disadvantaged than students who remain in public schools.

Dr. David Figlio, a professor at Northwestern University who evaluated the program for years, stated, “scholarship participants have significantly poorer test performance in the year prior to starting the scholarship program than do nonparticipants.” Figlio reasoned parents will seek educational options when their children are struggling. The same holds true for students who leave private schools and return to public ones.

But that’s not an indictment of those private schools. In fact, Figlio concluded there is no evidence that scholarship students were performing worse because of their time in private schools.

The children who do find success in their private schools stay on the program longer — and they see some pretty big benefits. A report released last month by Matthew Chingos, Thomas Monarrez and Dan Keuhn of the respected Urban Institute found scholarship students were up to 43 more likely to enroll in four-year colleges than their counterparts in public schools, and up to 20 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. Those remaining on the program four or more years were up to 45 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Private schools are functionally different from public schools; that’s a feature, not a bug. Results continue to show students on the program do as well, or better, than they would have in public schools. An impressive feat considering the scholarships are worth between $6,519 and $7,111, much less than what is spent on public schools.

As parents in Miami-Dade know well, private schools are just one educational option among many from which children may choose to find success. Today, Florida has 1.6 million students in PK-12th grade attending schools outside their neighborhood zone. Options include home education, virtual education, charter schools, open enrollment programs, magnet schools, IB programs and more.

The more options we’ve added, the better our K-12 system has become. This year Education Week ranked Florida No. 4 in the nation on K-12 achievement.  When adjusting for demographic differences between states, the Urban Institute ranks Florida No. 1 in the nation for fourth-grade Math and Reading, and No. 8 and No. 3 for eighth-grade Math and Reading, respectively.

Far from being “frozen forever in failure,” Florida’s 20-plus years of school choice have helped transform the state’s educational systems into one of the best in the country.

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager for Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers four state-supported scholarship programs, including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.


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