Florida’s tax credit scholarship saves taxpayer dollars and helps students succeed

Editor’s note: This guest editorial written by Florida Sen. Joe Gruters, who represents District 32 and serves as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, first appeared in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

In her Nov. 1 column, (Herald Tribune opinions editor) Barbara Peters Smith wrote that she welcomes a debate on school vouchers – as do I. But she describes a very different education landscape than the hard facts reveal. Two decades of data demonstrate that Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program has benefited the low-income students it is aimed at.

First, we need to put to rest the idea that private schools improve outcomes because they “weed out” students less likely to succeed. The truth is students who choose the FTC – 68% of whom are Black or Hispanic, with an average annual family income of about $25,755 – are among the lowest-performing students in the public schools they leave behind.

According to research by the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University, new scholarship students scored roughly 5 percentile points lower in math and reading than scholarship-eligible public students in the year before they started on the scholarship. A 2013 report described the difference this way: “Scholarship participants have significantly poorer test performance in the year prior to starting the scholarship program than do non-participants … These differences are large in magnitude and are statistically significant.”

If that is “weeding out,” then private schools are doing a poor job of it – they’re taking the kids who have the biggest mountains to climb academically.

And yet, standardized test score analyses of FTC students consistently show that even though scholarship students were, on average, the lowest-performing students in their prior public schools, they’re now making the same annual learning gains as students of all income levels nationally. In other words, the average scholarship student has moved from falling further behind grade level each year to gaining a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s worth of time.

That has led to long-term success. In its 2019 report, the Urban Institute found that FTC students were up to 43% more likely to enroll in four-year colleges than their public school peers, and up to 20% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. For those who used the scholarship four or more years, the outcomes were even stronger – up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

All these improved outcomes are coming at far less cost than the alternative. According to a 2019 analysis by Florida TaxWatch, the average amount for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship was $6,447 in 2017-18, while the average per-pupil funding for Florida district schools was $10,856. That puts the value of the scholarship at 59% of the average, per-pupil cost in district schools.

It’s not just private school students who are benefiting from scholarships. A report this year from the National Bureau of Economic Research found as the FTC program expanded, students attending public schools most affected by the increased competition from private schools experienced higher test scores, reduced absenteeism and lower suspension rates.

Meanwhile, during this two-decades growth in tax credit scholarship enrollment – and education choice in general – Florida overall has made impressive strides in academic achievement. Florida ranks No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, its highest position ever. The state also ranks No. 1, No. 1, No. 3, and No. 8 on the four core tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

So much for choice dragging down Florida public schools.

The results are indisputable positives for Florida students, particularly low-income students. That’s why education choice supporters like me welcome a debate on scholarship programs: We have the facts on our side.

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BY Special to NextSteps