The pandemic accelerated a national trend toward more choice in education
Private schools began the last school year with a financial fright as enrollment fell in the pandemic.
The scare didn’t last.
Many opened before their public school counterparts, and parents, in the main, returned their children quickly to school. Enrollment ended flat or, at worst, slightly down for many schools. Some saw increases as families moving in from out-of-state either were happy to buy the in-person education that they couldn’t get for free in their former homes or discovered Florida financially supports private school choice. The Legislature in the spring expanded funding for private school parents even more.
The question now for the private-school sector is whether it will add capacity to meet the market. “The vast majority of schools are full and trying to find space and build space,” says Daniel Aqua of Teach Florida, an organization representing 50 Jewish day schools and 12,000 students. “It’s definitely a good time in the Jewish day schools in Florida.”
The pandemic proved good for school choice nationally, as well as in Florida.
“This has been the year of choice across the country,” says Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, an education and advocacy group. “Definitely because of the pandemic. Families were so impacted by school closures.”
Four states created education savings account programs, 13 expanded or opened new private school choice programs and a large number expanded choice within public schools, she says.
The Florida Legislature, meanwhile, streamlined its existing private-school scholarship programs — previously, separate programs addressed low-income or special needs students in different ways — and widened eligibility. Levesque says up to 1.2 million low-income public school students could be eligible to move to private schools.
“Growth will depend on supply,” she says. “If there’s enough supply out there, they could have choice and exercise it any time. It’s a pretty dramatic increase in terms of eligible students who don’t have to wait in line. There’s definitely a robust opportunity to serve families.”
Says James Herzog, director of legislative services for the Florida Association of Academic Nonpublic Schools, “The 2021 Legislature gave a great shot in the arm to all the independent and faith-based schools in Florida.” The organization represents 80% of Florida private school students.
The Legislature also made it easier for private school students to take dual-enrollment courses.
Approximately 12% of Florida students attended private school in 2019-20, according to an annual survey from the state Department of Education. The number of children in pre-K through 12th grade in private school in Florida that year hit a record at 397,970 — larger than the number of students in Miami-Dade County public schools, itself the fourth-largest school district in the nation. Another 106,115 are home schooled. Florida laws and regulations have a number of features beneficial to those desiring to home school.
Catholic schools in Florida saw elementary enrollment (pre-K through eighth grade) fall 5% in the pandemic, and high school enrollment fell 1.3%, says Mike Barrett of the Florida Catholic Conference. Florida’s growing population has allowed Florida Catholic schools to avoid the closing of church schools seen in other parts of the country. Only one Florida Catholic school, 140-student Divine Mercy Catholic Academy on Merritt Island, announced it was closing. It blamed falling enrollment due to job cuts in its area and a falloff in financial support from its home parish as the pandemic impacted church attendance.
The 239 Catholic schools in Florida educate 79,623 students, about 30,000 of them on some form of state scholarship. “We’re very excited for the new school year as things continue to open and hopefully we’re past the pandemic,” Barrett says. “The Legislature did a lot of great things this past session in regards to school choice that will benefit a lot of Florida families and benefit Catholic schools, too.”
The Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which doesn’t include Catholic schools, says enrollment during 2020-21 fell by less than 5%. Association Executive Director Howard Burke expects the Legislature’s actions to help going forward. “It’s going to open the door for additional students,” Burke says.
“Florida,” Burke says, “is the leader in all of this across the country. More and more states are seeing what Florida and Texas and other states have done with choice and education scholarships. The biggest winners are the impaired, the children at risk and the people who were not being served and could not afford private education.”
Meanwhile, Florida public charter schools continue to expand. The number of students in charters in Florida increased 3.6% in the pandemic year to 341,000. “The demand is there. It’s driven by parental demand,” says Lynn Norman- Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance, a public charter school advocacy group. She says charter sponsors and operators who had projects in the pipeline before the pandemic are going forward with their plans.
Long prevalent in Southeast Florida, charters are growing in Central Florida, she says. State data show 22% of Osceola County and 15% of Lake County public school students are now enrolled in charters, though the numbers are in single digits in Orange and Seminole.
The Legislature this year made it easier for state colleges to open their own public charters. Meanwhile, Florida’s public schools, compared to public schools in other states, distinguished themselves by opening and giving parents a choice between in-person and remote learning. “What our school districts did was really incredible,” Levesque says. Districts in other states closed for the year or much of it. Others alternated days of in-person and remote learning that played havoc with parent work schedules. “Our school districts were being very parent-friendly. When we would go and have to talk and work in other states, it was really the envy of a lot of other places,” Levesque says.
Aqua, of Teach Florida, says its Jewish day schools benefited from being open as the year began while Miami-Dade and Broward remained closed initially for in-person education. He says parents of about 90% of students took advantage of the schools’ opening on time for in-person instruction, though with masks, social distancing and learning pods, to have their children in school. Enrollment increased 20% over the past two years as families came from out of state, primarily from New York, New Jersey and California, he says. Some told school officials and Teach Florida directly that they came specifically because Florida supports students in private school. He says 184,000 of the 610,000 students in private school nationally who are on some form of education savings accounts, vouchers or scholarships are in Florida — about 30% of the national total. “There’s nothing in the entire country like Florida,” Aqua says.
The Cost of Public Education
K-12 education is the largest piece of the state budget aside from Medicaid. State funding makes up 56.5% of the total K-12 education budget, with local funds contributing the remaining 43.5%.
$10,856 — True cost per student, as calculated by Florida TaxWatch. The sum includes both per-student funding appropriated by the Legislature ($7,408) and other school-related spending, including school construction, voter-approved general obligation bonds, preschool programs, debt service, capital outlays, etc.
$7,476 — True cost per charter school student. Charter schools in Florida have historically received less money overall than traditional public schools because local districts haven’t shared local tax revenue collected for facility construction. Local districts also charge charters an administrative fee for certain services, including test administration services. In addition, charter schools typically receive a smaller share of state funds for facilities and capital. A 2014 study by the University of Arkansas concluded that Florida charter school students receive $2,130 less in funding, on average, than students who attend traditional public schools.
$6,447 — Average maximum scholarship available through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows children from low-income and working-class families to attend private schools.
Source: Florida TaxWatch, 2019 report, The True Cost of Public Education in Florida 2.0, using 2017-18 data
Charter Schools: By the Numbers
Some of Florida’s smallest school districts have the largest percentages of their students in charter schools. In Bay County, for example, 20% of the district’s 25,109 students attend charters. In Franklin County, 28% of the 1,312 students attend charter schools. Among larger urban counties, Miami- Dade has the largest percentage of its students in charters — 20%. The next closest large county is Broward with 18%.
A Range of Options
In 2019-20, about 40% of the 2.85 million students in publicly funded K-12 schools didn’t attend the school for which they are zoned. Among the students exercising choice are:
234,265 — In choice and magnet programs operated by district schools
111,219 — Receiving tax credit scholarships
14,729 — In International Baccalaureate programs
136,437 — At career and professional academies at 424 high schools
12,907 — In full-time virtual instruction
Source: Step Up for Students
2.85 million — Total statewide enrollment
341,926 — Total charter school enrollment (12% of the overall total)
397,970 — Private school enrollment
106,115 — Home school enrollment (up 27% over five years)
A Scholarship Primer
Florida had five scholarship programs for low-income students or those with special needs to attend private school or to pay for transportation to a public school outside their traditional school zone. They are:
John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities program. In 2019-20, 30,185 students attending 1,547 private schools received $221.5 million in scholarships.
Gardiner Scholarship program. Created in 2014, it funds special services such as occupational therapy, or tuition for specialized education and tutoring or contributions to a college prepaid account for students with disabilities. In 2020, 17,508 students received Gardiner scholarships at an average of $10,464 per student.
Students in the Gardiner Scholarship program starting this year and McKay Scholarship program starting July 2022 will be served through the Family Empowerment Scholarship.
Family Empowerment Scholarship program. Created in 2019, it provided 17,823 students — first-come, first-served — with scholarship funds to attend private school in 2019-20. Students had to be starting kindergarten or transferring from a public school. For the 2020-21 school year, the number of scholarship students was up to 36,384 with an average scholarship of $6,972. Family eligibility topped out at 300% of the federal poverty level — $79,500 for a family of four.
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. Created in 2001, it allows contributions to a scholarship fund in return for a tax credit for corporate income tax, insurance premium and some other taxes. In 2019-20, $670 million in scholarships was paid out for 111,219 students in 1,870 schools — mostly private but also to cover transportation for some students to public schools outside their zoned schools. Family income eligibility was capped at 260% of the federal poverty level — $68,900 for a family of four. Students had to be coming from public school.
The Hope Scholarship program. Created in 2018, it allows parents to transfer a student who was the subject of a “specified incident” — bullying, for example — to another public school or enroll in a private one. In 2021, it paid for 390 children — at an average of $6,815 — to go to a private school and paid on average $750 for transportation to transfer 476 students to a new public school.
Legislative Action in 2021
Along with consolidating the McKay and Gardiner programs into the Family Empowerment program, the Legislature expanded eligibility for it and the Florida Tax Credit program to up to 375% of the federal poverty level — or $99,375 for a family of four — though priority is given to those making up to 185% of the poverty level. The state estimates that will open the door to up to 61,082 new scholarship students.
However, the Legislature also opened eligibility up further by decreeing that certain students won’t count against the state’s caps. Those include children of members of the U.S. armed forces, students from foster or adoptive families and siblings of students receiving a disability scholarship. The state also jettisoned the requirement that children have to transfer from a public school.
The Legislature also specified that the caps will grow — depending on the program — at 1% of similar student enrollment in Florida.
Founder, Step Up for Students, Tampa
Over the past 25 years, Florida has made more progress than any other state in moving to a new definition of public education. Before that time, the definition was simple: Raise taxpayer dollars to educate Florida’s children, and give every penny to the school districts. The districts would run all the schools in a fairly uniform manner and assign kids by their ZIP codes. This definition had been the same for over 100 years, and it worked really well for most kids. But it didn’t work great for every single kid.
As you know well, Florida is an incredibly diverse state. More than 100 languages are spoken in the Miami- Dade County schools alone! Further, if you drive from Coral Gables to Overtown, you will see great economic diversity as well. Expecting a one-size-fits-all system to produce excellence for every single student is just not humanly possible. Fortunately, Florida has been moving toward a new definition of public education: Raise taxpayers dollars to educate students, but empower families to direct those dollars to different providers, and even different delivery methods that best suit their children’s unique learning needs.
Today there are roughly 3 million K-12 students whose educations are paid for by the taxpayers. Last year, over 40% of them did not attend their zoned district school.
We want to see all students succeed, and we are completely agnostic as to where they go to school. If you could guarantee me that every student would succeed at their zoned district school, I would be thrilled to go find another cause. Fortunately, choice has helped Florida students succeed since it has been introduced.
The first charter school and private school choice programs were passed in the mid- to late 1990s. In the early 1990s, Florida was almost at the bottom of the NAEP rankings — the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This is the only test given to a sampling of students in every state and allows us to compare achievement by state, and it’s given every two years to fourth- and eighth-graders. Florida now ranks No. 1, No. 1, No. 3 and No. 8 on the four core tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, once adjusted for demographics. Education Week says Florida now ranks No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement. Florida now ranks No. 2 in the percentage of graduating seniors who’ve passed AP exams. Florida has a higher rate of low-income students than every state but one in the top 10. Florida’s high school graduation rate was 52% in 1998. It was 87% in 2019.
Choice is certainly not the only reason for this improvement. But I strongly believe that choice is the catalyst that helps all other reform and improvement efforts work better. Tax credit scholarship students are up to 43% more likely than their public school peers to attend fouryear colleges and up to 20% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, according to the Urban Institute. Students on scholarship four or more years are up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.
What’s next for Florida? I think that there will be a demand from families for more customization. Many families will be relieved to go back to the traditional brick-and-mortar school. But many families will discover that they like the flexibility and customization that the pandemic forced them to develop. Maybe they like having their child take some classes online and some in person. Maybe they like having their child move along at their own pace in math online, but they want in person classes for other topics. Maybe they had a great experience supplementing their math classes with tutoring at Kumon or Mathnasium. Maybe they had a great experience with a “pod” with 10 other kids and a full-time teacher. These are all situations tailor-made for ESAs (education savings accounts).
The key issue with ESAs is: Can they be executed with accountability and fidelity? Given the fervent opposition to educational choice in the press and other quarters, there cannot be even a small amount of fraud with an ESA.
Our dream at Step Up is that every family is empowered to customize their children’s educations to maximize their potential. It’s not enough that families have the ability to direct funds. They must also have good information and make good decisions. That’s where we have to concentrate in the future.
Read more in Florida Trend's August issue.
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