Choice: Florida Voucher Program


On the upcoming legislative agenda in Florida is what House Speaker Will Weatherford calls a “massive expansion of choice for families.’’

In other words, give the people what they want: the right to pick their children’s schools. The popularity of Florida’s choice options has, in fact, created widespread bi-partisan support, particularly for the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship Program.

It began in 2001 with about 10,000 students and has grown to almost 60,000 students, a number held in check by a finite number of scholarships. The reason for the growth is that 80 percent of parents are satisfied with the scholarship schools.

A program that began on a partisan vote now has broad bi-partisan support. A 2012 expansion in the number of scholarships was approved by a 32-8 vote in the Florida Senate and a 92-24 vote in the House.

Northwestern University researcher David Figlio has conducted six annual reports on the academic progress of students in the schools based on their performance on approved standardized tests. He finds that not only are children making progress in the schools, but also that the competition seems to be having a positive impact on the performance of public schools.

Last year, his report concluded that “a cautious read of the weight of the available evidence suggests that the FTC Scholarship Program has boosted student performance in public schools statewide, that the program draws disproportionately low-income, poorly performing students from the public schools into the private schools, and that the students who moved perform as well or better once they move to the private schools.”

Throw in millions in cost savings because the scholarship amounts are less than the cost of sending a child to a traditional public school, and you get a multi-pronged win.

The state’s McKay Scholarship Program for students with learning disabilities is equally popular and effective.

This program began in 1999 when two children received scholarships to private schools. That number has grown to almost 30,000 students.

Early on in the program, surveys showed parents were overwhelmingly happy with McKay schools. They believed their children were being better served, given more individual attention and making more progress than in a traditional public school.

The Manhattan Institute reported that “participants in the McKay program are being significantly better served by McKay schools at no additional cost to the taxpayer and no or little additional cost to their families.’’

And far from hurting surrounding schools, the research showed they gained a small but noticeable improvement in test scores.

And looking at the big picture, since 2003, Florida has led the nation in learning gains by students with disabilities according to results to the National Assessment of Education Progress. In fact, their gains have tripled the national average.

The prestigious Quality Counts state rankings, meanwhile, list Florida as only one of five states making significant gains in closing the poverty achievement gap.

So we have scholarship programs targeting two student groups, and we are national leaders in the academic advancement of both those groups. It would seem Speaker Weatherford is on the right track.

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