How I changed my mind on educational choice scholarships for all

social security protest
Programs that are open to everyone, like Social Security, are often politically untouchable

Over the years, we’ve aired debates about the best way to design education choice scholarship programs. One key question has been eligibility. Should programs be open to all students? Or should they be targeted to students with the highest needs?

I’ve tried to lend a sympathetic ear to both sides of the debate. Most of the time, my sympathies tended toward the latter position.

When the Urban Institute released its first study on the program’s impact on students’ educational attainment, it noted that scholarship students were “triply disadvantaged. They have low family incomes; they are enrolled at low-performing public schools (as measured by test scores), and they have poorer initial test performance compared with their peers.”

When Florida’s teachers union and other groups sued to shut down Florida Tax Credit Scholarships, the program’s supporters derived great moral authority from the fact that scholarships were reserved for low-income students. The lawsuit, eventually dismissed, threatened to oust tens of thousands of children from schools their parents had chosen and likely could not access by other means.

Now, Florida is shifting to universal eligibility for its educational choice scholarships. And that’s clearly the direction of the national movement. Programs created or expanded across the country are increasingly open to all, or nearly all, K-12 students, rather than specific disadvantaged groups.

Proponents of universal programs tend to argue their approach is politically advantageous. Public schools, national parks, and Social Security have two things in common: They are open to all Americans (or at least claim to be), and they are politically untouchable. Programs targeted at narrower slices of the population tend to be more vulnerable to political upheaval.

I’ve rethought my own prior beliefs on targeted programs for different reasons. Universal programs could be more effective at providing sustainable help to families, for several reasons.

1. Simplicity

When families apply for targeted programs, they have to prove they’re eligible. Verifying a family’s income can be cumbersome. They may work multiple part-time jobs. Some of those jobs may pay them in cash. They may not have a computer at home, and find themselves downloading bank statements or juggling government documents on a mobile phone.

This likely helps explain why only 82 percent of families who qualify for federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits actually participate in the program. And the participation rate is even lower (72 percent) among the “working poor,” a group the program is specifically designed to help. Notably, these workers have to prove their income to qualify for nutrition assistance, where other individuals have more options, such as age or disability status, to prove their eligibility.

The need to prove income in targeted education choice scholarship programs likely creates barriers for families the programs are intended to help.

2. Stability

Whenever a program has an income-based cutoff for eligibility, it creates distorted incentives for people with incomes near the cutoff.

For example, Alabama’s newly expanded tax credit scholarship program is now available to families with incomes up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $75,000 for a family of four.

A public-school teacher in Alabama might earn $55,000 per year. Even if their spouse works part time to bring in some additional money, their household could likely qualify for two scholarships worth up to $10,000 each under new legislation passed this year. However, if that spouse decided to go to work full time (perhaps because both kids are now school age), they’d risk losing the scholarships. That might not wipe out all of the financial advantages of taking a full-time job, but it would offset them substantially.

Some programs allow families with higher incomes to receive partial scholarships, which helps smooth some of these eligibility cliffs. Universal programs eliminate them entirely.

3. Stigma (or lack thereof)

Researchers have identified two major forms of stigma that affect people applying for means-tested social service programs.

First, potential beneficiaries of these programs tend to expect poor treatment, assuming the quality of service will be low. Second, they feel applying for programs aimed at disadvantaged groups harms their self-identity. Bluntly, they perceive applying for such programs as seeking a handout.

This stigma can sometimes show up in schools. A school where any student can be a scholarship student is more likely to be a school where all students are treated equally. Making a program open to everyone might be a program to which families are less hesitant to apply.

Other ways to prioritize the needs of low-income families

As they become open to broader swaths of students, educational choice scholarship programs should still prioritize students with the highest needs.

For starters, any program with a limited number of scholarships available should send students from lower-income families to the front of the line. Florida’s program, expanded under HB 1, sets two income-based priority levels for students who apply: Those with incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, and those with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. This ensures low-income families take priority, and middle-income families take priority access before more affluent families.

In addition, to the extent possible, the amount of funding each student receives should be tailored to their level of need. Florida’s scholarships for students with unique abilities allow those with more complex needs to receive larger funding amounts. Similar logic could apply to students from low-income households, who might need help paying for supplemental tutoring, flexible transportation, or other services that affluent families can afford more easily, and that scholarship funds can help purchase.

Matthew Joseph of ExcelinEd recently outlined strategies states can use to identify low-income students for supplemental funding while limiting the additional hoops families and educators have to jump through. For example, states can provide additional funding to every student who qualifies for Medicaid, using data the state government should already have.

The goal should be to combine the virtues of universal programs (simplicity, stability, and a lack of stigma) and targeted programs (prioritizing resources for the students who need them most). That remains a work in progress.

Avatar photo

BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)