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What Can Florida Teach Us About School Choice?

The state’s programs sometimes improve education outcomes — but not necessarily for offering more choice.

By Elena Gooray


(Photo: Roman Mager/Unsplash)

The ever-singular state of Florida has already been put to special use by the Trump administration: promoting school choice.

President Donald Trump made his first official school visit earlier this monthto St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando. The trip came just a few days after his first address to Congress, in which he singled out Denisha Merriweather, a master’s student at the University of South Florida who was able to attend private K-12 school thanks to the state’s tax credit scholarship program. Trump and his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have hailed Florida’s school choice program, which allows students to attend schools of their choice outside the public school system, as being a model for the rest of the United States to follow. But how well have school choice programs in Florida worked? And do they deserve to be a national model?

The key idea behind school choice is to create channels of state and private money in order to allow parents to remove their kids from public schools and place them in alternative options. Florida’s programs, to that end, have shown some modest positive effects in test scores and graduation rates. But researchers are still untangling whether those effects stem from the choice aspects of programs or from the increased accountability and tracking they bring to schools that could be applied without taking students out of the traditional public system.

Florida has long offered the usual suspects for expanding school choice:private schools, which require tuition; and charters, which are free and receive public funding but operate outside the oversight placed on their traditional counterparts. Private schools have a slight edge in enrollment: About 8.6 percent of K-12 Florida students attended charters in the 2015–16 school year, compared to the 11.0 percent attending private institutions, according to state data.

Florida’s state-funded choice programs provide tuition and other financial support to families who couldn’t afford private school otherwise. Those options include an incentive program that gives tax credits for donations to non-profit organizations, which, in turn, provide tuition scholarships to low-income families; a non-profit-run program that gives students with disabilities money that can go toward educational support besides tuition; and state-funded tuition vouchers geared toward students with disabilities.

“One of the things unique about Florida is that they were one of the first, if not the first, states to have expanded school choice and high-stakes accountability for schools,” says Tim Sass, an economics professor at Georgia State University. “Now, trying to use Florida as a model for how these programs should operate is a whole different question. It’s more like a laboratory for testing the best aspects of charters and other mechanisms.”

Looking at data from the early 2000s, Sass found a positive for the state’s charters: Despite performing worse than traditional public schools in their early years, charters that had been around for a least five years saw their students scoring about the same as their public school peers in math and producing better test scores in reading. Sass and his colleagues also found that, among students who attended a charter middle school, those who went on to a charter high school were significantly more likely to graduate than those who returned to the traditional public system for high school.

“Trying to use Florida as a model for how these programs should operate is a whole different question. It’s more like a laboratory for testing the best aspects of charters and other mechanisms.”

On the private school front, vouchers have shown some modest positive effects—at least on the schools they help children leave. The competitive pressure that vouchers place on public schools — by threatening to poach dissatisfied students — pushed some publics in Florida to improve test scores, according to one 2014 paper published by education policy professors Cassandra Hart at the University of California–Davis and David Figlio at Northwestern University.

The difference “is not Earth-shattering,” Figlio says. “Anyone who thinks that if we have a voucher program it’s going to revolutionize the public schools — there’s just no evidence of a revolution. However, there were these modest positive gains as a direct consequence of this voucher program.”

But these results don’t provide clear evidence to endorse school choice options over other potential reforms. Enrollment demographics, like lower-performing students dropping out of charters and private schools, may inflate scores and graduation records at those alternative schools. (The Florida State Department of Education is investigating whether Orlando’s charters are underreporting dropouts.) Sass’ study controlled for that bias by comparing performance for single students as they moved from school to school.

As for the benefits from competition, it’s not clear whether schools are most motivated to improve by pressure from choice programs or other measures to raise accountability, such as publicly available low-performing school lists, says Figlio, who has studied both approaches. A review of national data, released last month by Stanford University economist and education professor Martin Carnoy, championed accountability measures over vouchers as more likely to drive school improvement without reshuffling money that could be put toward reforms more strongly backed by research, like investments in early childhood education and student health and nutrition programs. (Sass found Carnoy’s analyses on student achievement effects “thoughtful and balanced,” while Figlio called the conclusions “appropriately skeptical but a bit too pessimistic.”)

The relevance of Florida’s school choice lessons — or haziness — already extends beyond the current administration’s public gestures, to legislation being debated around the country. Thirty-one states have introduced bills to create or expand private school choice programs, Mother Jones reported last week—of the sort Senator Ted Cruz is currently pushing in Texas.