A new study by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank has found low-income students in Florida who attend private schools with the help of a controversial, state-approved voucher program are more likely to enroll in and graduate from in-state public colleges than their similarly situated peers who stick with public schools.
School choice advocates applauded the recent findings by the Urban Institute as further verification of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships’ effectiveness, while opponents expressed skepticism by calling into question the study’s methodology.
“At a time when community leaders, lawmakers and researchers are looking for tools to help more low-income students enroll in higher education, Florida has a program that is successfully doing exactly that,” said Adam Peshek, education choice director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national nonprofit founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush that promotes school choice options. (Current U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — like Bush, an avid school choice supporter — served on the foundation’s board before she joined the Trump Administration.)
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program began in 2001 as a way to help children from low-income families access alternative educational options.
Businesses receive dollar-for-dollar tax breaks from the state in exchange for donating money directly to one of two organizations that oversee the scholarships. Children from low-income families are awarded the money to help offset the cost of private school education.
About 102,000 children — most of whom are black or Hispanic — received scholarships of up to $6,900 each for the 2017-18 school year, according to Step Up For Students, the state-approved nonprofit organization that distributes most of the scholarship money and whose data was cited in the institute’s analysis.
The students used the awards to attend one of nearly 1,800 private schools across the state — some of which are affiliated with religious institutions.
Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn, who authored the institute’s study, concluded that “the nation’s largest private school choice program helps get students into college, but too many still fail to earn degrees.”
“A fuller understanding of what this means for these students will require continuing to track their outcomes, including bachelor’s degree attainment rates and incomes,” they wrote.
The institute looked at students who began receiving scholarships between the 2004-05 school year and the 2010-11 school year, so that they could follow the oldest of those students over a decade. They found students who received the private school voucher were 6 percentage points more likely to enroll in a Florida public college than similar students in public schools.
“We find consistent evidence that [program] participation had substantial, positive, statistically significant effects on college enrollment,” Chingos and Kuehn wrote, noting that the impacts were greater for associates’ degree programs than for enrollment in four-year colleges or earning bachelor’s degrees.
We find consistent evidence that [program] participation had substantial, positive, statistically significant effects on college enrollment.
Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn, authors of Urban Institute study
The institute found that scholarship recipients tended to have better college enrollment and graduation rates the longer they had the scholarship. “This may be because students who benefit the most from the program also remain in the program the longest,” Chingos and Kuehn wrote.
They noted that 37 percent of scholarship recipients are in the program for only one year, “and these students do not appear to benefit from the program.”
The authors also cautioned that “our findings are limited” because they looked only at program participants who went to public higher education institutions in Florida, whereas “national data indicate that low-income students from private high schools are more likely to enroll in private and out-of-state colleges than low-income students from public high schools.”
The Florida Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union, which unsuccessfully attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit scholarships — was among those hesitant to embrace the study’s findings.
“We’d like to see more about the methodology and sampling used by the researchers,” FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said.
He referenced criticism expressed to The Associated Press by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, in regards to the methodology. “We’d like to see if other researchers come to similar conclusions about this report,” Pudlow said.
Chingos and Kuehn wrote that their study was the first of its kind, whereas previous research had largely focused on comparing test scores between the scholarship recipients and their peers in public school.
Meanwhile, officials at Step Up For Students heralded the findings as the “the strongest evidence yet that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is boosting academic and social outcomes for some of Florida’s most disadvantaged students, with positive effects on both college enrollment and degree completion.”
“It’s also more evidence that an approach to educational accountability that balances regulations with parental choice can be effective in driving quality and putting more students on the path to success,” Step Up’s president Doug Tuthill said in a statement.