Florida just expanded school vouchers — again. What does that really mean?

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — After seeing her daughter struggle in second, then third and fourth grades, Van McCourt-Ostrand wanted options. So, last year, the St. Petersburg mother of two applied for and received a voucher that would allow her youngest child to attend a private school in Florida.

McCourt-Ostrand, whose daughter has dyslexia, had two schools in mind, including one specializing in students with the reading-centered learning disability. She imagined her 11-year-old daughter finally having “peers, teachers, kids who understand what she is going through.”

That hope quickly vanished. Despite school visits, including one after which her daughter declared she had “met nice kids and enjoyed her experience,” she was not admitted. McCourt-Ostrand applied to the other school, but was told, “there is no room for you at fifth grade.”

“We had a voucher and nowhere to go with it,” she said.

Of the roughly 2,300 private schools accepting vouchers, 69 percent are unaccredited, 58 percent are religious and nearly one-third are for-profit, according to the state education department.

Even if her daughter had gotten in, she said, the voucher would have covered only about $7,000. Tuition at the first school was $20,000. It was $18,700 at the second — not including books, supplies, uniforms, tutoring and other expenses.

“I don’t know what we would have done,” said McCourt-Ostrand, “but we would have tried.”

Around the country, the political razzle-dazzle around “school choice” — giving families who enroll in the programs vouchers to spend on a range of school options as they see fit — is electrifying conservatives, grabbing public attention and becoming a GOP campaign banner. This year, states including Iowa, Utah and Arkansas have adopted universal school vouchers, which can be used like coupons for tuition, or education savings accounts (ESAs), which put money into accounts or onto debit cards for parents to use for school costs. Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account, offered starting last fall, has so far enrolled over 50,000 students, many of whom were already attending private schools. Legislatures in some 30 states are considering related moves.

Related: School choice had a big moment in the pandemic. But is it what parents want for the long run?

In March, Florida became the latest state to dramatically broaden access to public money for private schooling. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation making vouchers, worth about $8,500 each, eventually available to all K-12 students, regardless of family income (or whether a child has ever attended public school). The vouchers would also be available to home-schooled students, and ESAs could be used to pay for expenses beyond tuition.

In Florida and elsewhere, the pitches are bold, claiming that: “competition breeds excellence” and that choice will “put parents firmly in the driver’s seat” and is “about giving every student the best opportunity.” Less bold: detailed discussion of real-world consequences.

What if, like McCourt-Ostrand, your child doesn’t get into the school they want or need? What if a school costs more than the voucher’s value (as many do)? How can you tell if a private school is any good? And the big challenge: What does this mean for public schools, which 90 percent of children in America attend?

Members of the Hillsborough County School Board meet for a workshop on February 13 to seek consensus on new school attendance boundaries. There was no consensus reached. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report.

This historic expansion of vouchers in Florida has many parents and education experts there worried about the impact on public schools and debating what the expansion will cost and how it should be funded. Since 2019, when DeSantis began expanding access to vouchers, they have been paid for by rerouting state money from public districts to private education.

Over the past three years, the percentage of state-formula funding redirected from public to private education has risen from 3 to 10 percent, said Norín Dollard, senior policy analyst and KIDS COUNT director at the Florida Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research and policy organization. Next year, that could reach 30 percent, or $4 billion, according to calculations by Dollard and Mary McKillip of the Education Law Center.

“I don’t think I am being overly dramatic in saying it will fundamentally change public schools to have such a huge amount of funds diverted to private schools,” said Dollard.

“We will be decimated”

Florida public schools have long faced competition. In 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the “Opportunity Scholarship Program,” which gave students in so-called failing public schools vouchers to help pay for private or religious ones. After the state Supreme Court in 2006 ruled the program unconstitutional because of its impact on public schools, the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarship, created just a few years earlier, started to grow. It is financed through donations from companies to private school scholarships for low-income students that also lower the companies’ taxes. The number of students receiving FTC scholarships has risen by 62 percent over the past decade, which has no doubt contributed to the overall growth of private school enrollments. By the 2021-22 school year, 12.8 percent of Florida students attended private schools, above the national average; a decade earlier, it was 10.6 percent of the state’s students. 

Under DeSantis, the state also created and expanded (and combined and renamed) an array of voucher programs that cover tuition or other educational needs and services. These vouchers are targeted to students who have been bullied or faced violence or have disabilities, who are low-income or “working class” or siblings of voucher recipients, or who need reading help, among others.

Data from Step Up For Students, the primary group that administers the various scholarships, shows that about 130,000 students received vouchers in 2021-22 through four key scholarship programs. More recent state data shows that, in addition, nearly 100,000 students this year received tax-credit-based tuition vouchers, 81 percent to attend religious schools.

“I don’t think I am being overly dramatic in saying it will fundamentally change public schools to have such a huge amount of funds diverted to private schools.”

Norín Dollard, senior policy analyst and KIDS COUNT director, Florida Policy Institute

With this exodus from district schools in a state where the educational brand is “choice,” ordinary public schools face serious challenges. Step Up For Students boasts that 1.6 million, or “approximately 49% of K-12 students,” already participate in some form of choice, including magnet schools and career training programs.

The challenges are certainly being felt in Hillsborough County, located in an arc around Tampa Bay that includes the palm-treed “Riverwalk” downtown, tony suburban neighborhoods with water-view homes and mobile home parks in rural areas with names like “Plantation Oaks.” A rising percentage of Hillsborough County’s diverse student population now attends private schools —10.8 percent, up from 8.7 percent a decade earlier — or charters, which are public but often run by for-profit companies.

The nation’s seventh-largest school district, Hillsborough County may offer a harbinger of the impact of universal vouchers and “choice” on public schools nationally. Even before DeSantis signed the law, Addison Davis, superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools, warned during a school board workshop in February that voucher expansion “will potentially cripple public education.” Similar concern has rippled through the community.

“I give us maximum two years; we will be decimated,” said Paula Castano, a public school parent who, in spring 2021, co-founded the nonprofit Hillsborough Public School Advocates. The group avoids culture war issues like book bans to focus on the threat to the existence of public education. Castano worries: “People just don’t know what is about to happen to their schools.”

Earlishia Oates (center) with two of her children, Russell Stanley, Jr., 14, in eighth grade (left) and Alicia Wyche, 17, in twelfth grade (right). Oates briefly entertained getting a voucher when a redistricting proposal called for putting students from rival neighborhoods into the same school. The proposal did not go forward. Credit: Image provided by Earlishia Oates

One parent, Earlishia Oates, already sees stresses. “I have all the kids from the bus stop on my porch,” she said by phone one day a few weeks ago. The school bus was not just a bit late; it wasn’t showing. She had 10 children with her, she said, and “they can’t go back home. The doors are locked.”

A mother of four who parents another child in her home (“my community son”), Oates works as a community organizer and advocate for parents in public housing. She is “the bus stop lady” because she waits with children whose parents leave early for jobs at Walmart and Family Dollar. When buses don’t show (the district has a shortage of drivers, teachers and staff), Oates said, “high schoolers go back and find something else to do, which is not good.”

Even parents in the county’s wealthier neighborhoods are noticing new troubles in their district schools, said Brita Wilkins Lincoln, a parent and member of the Florida PTA state legislative committee. She cited a request her school made to the PTA to organize parents to monitor students who had to take an AP Physics class online because a teacher retired and the school couldn’t hire a replacement. (The group declined. “That is not an appropriate thing for the PTA to do,” Wilkins Lincoln said.)

When schools are beset with problems, voucher advocates say parents should be able to send their children elsewhere. As DeSantis signed the new law, he said choice forces schools to “perform better because they compete for individual students.”

But Damaris Allen, a Hillsborough County Public Schools parent and executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Families for Strong Public Schools, said vouchers diminish resources for public schools. Her son attends her old high school and takes AP French, as she did. “My class had 24 students in it; his class has 38 students in it,” she said. “In addition to that, we are seeing reductions in programs, such as the arts and robotics.” The voucher expansion will lead to more cuts, Allen fears, and leave parents “without a real choice.”

Related: COLUMN: Do we need more ‘parental rights’ — or help fixing the real problems in education?

That message is missed by many, said Wilkins Lincoln. “People just hear headlines of ‘We are going to have more choices,’ ” she said. Parents coping with inflation and rising rents “do not realize the significance of what is happening.” Advocates, she said, “sell it as ‘choice’ and who doesn’t want choice? But that is not what this is about. It is about privatizing public education.”

The administrative building for Hillsborough County Public Schools where a February 13 board workshop was held to seek consensus on new school attendance boundaries. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report.

“Choice is sold as a solution.”

Choice is a tough subject in Hillsborough County. The region has grown 20 percent in a decade, but that has been anything but a boon for the public schools. Data from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Florida Policy Institute shows that county public schools lost $75.7 million in state funding to private school vouchers this year — and are poised to lose more than three times that, or $309.4 million, next year. That represents more than one-quarter of the district’s state aid.

Charter school choice has been an even more dramatic challenge to Hillsborough County’s district public schools. Over the past decade, enrollment in district-run schools fell as charter enrollment nearly tripled. This year, district data show that charters serve 34,505, or 15 percent, of county public school students. Because money follows the student, in addition to losses from vouchers, the Hillsborough County district schools are also losing dollars to charters.

It’s a complicated problem. While voucher advocates say funding losses are offset because schools no longer have to educate the children who leave, Dollard says that districts like Hillsborough County cannot turn on a dime. “Public schools have fixed costs, with buildings and buses and salaries, whether the kid is there or not,” she said. Plus, unlike private schools, including religious and for-profit ones, public schools cannot cap enrollment or pick some students and reject others. They must accept and serve all.

“I wish everyone came home to a sit-down dinner with their parents. [But] we are not living in a utopic world.”

Karen Perez, Hillsborough County Public Schools board member

That’s an issue because district schools enroll a higher percentage of students who are more costly to educate. Of the county’s English Language Learners in public schools, 96 percent are enrolled in district schools, not charters. And 90 percent of those with special needs attend district schools, not charters, according to district data.

On top of funding headaches, county population growth has fed enrollment shifts. Now, with uneven moves to privates and charters, some schools are half empty (as low as 44 percent capacity), while others are busting at the seams (as high as 159 percent). District leaders are trying to redraw attendance boundaries to even out enrollments and — critically — save money. But it hasn’t gone well. Parents are upset — and therefore could leave or “choice out,” as one school board member put it, placing the district in an even more precarious position.

District stresses were on display at a Hillsborough County school board workshop in mid-February. In an administration building 15 minutes from downtown Tampa, administrators, school board members, media and 50 others convened in a mustard-walled room with drop ceilings in hopes of gaining some consensus around boundary plans. (There would be none.) Glum-faced parents propped signs before them that read “Say No to 3!” in opposition to one plan. School board members advocated for their neighborhoods. But most people acknowledged a glaring fact: The proposed reassignment plans would fall most heavily on low-income students of color by busing them to different neighborhoods.

School board member Karen Perez is concerned about new school attendance boundary proposals that would fall most heavily on low-income students of color. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report.

Busing the most disadvantaged students far from where they live makes it hard for the students to fully participate in school, including in sports and clubs, objected board member Karen Perez. In many cases, grandparents are acting as parents and may not have a car or be able to drive students who come early or stay after school when there is no bus transportation. “That 70-year-old grandma with cataracts is raising grandchildren; that is a reality,” she added after the meeting. “I wish everyone came home to a sit-down dinner with their parents,” said Perez, but “we are not living in a utopic world.”

In theory, vouchers let students “vote with their feet” and force schools to improve to attract them. They also let families choose a school that seems the best fit. “My view is that these things can be good,” said Seth Zimmerman, an associate professor at Yale’s School of Organization and Management who studies the economics of education.

But details matter, he said, and effectiveness depends on ensuring that “competitive pressures are pointed in the right direction” — which means regulating or incentivizing schools in a choice system to serve at-risk students. “It’s tricky,” said Zimmerman. “What I’m not convinced works very well is saying, ‘Here are the vouchers, let it rip.’”

Related: Supreme Court ruling brings an altered legal landscape for school choice

School choice, ideally, said Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, is not “just giving families public dollars to attend private school,” but requiring transparency — and providing good information — so parents can make informed decisions. Otherwise, said Toch, it “is largely a transfer of public monies to families without a public policy purpose.”

In Hillsborough County, surrounding Tampa, 96 percent of English Language Learners are in district public schools, not charters, and 90 percent of those with special needs attend district schools, not charters, according to district data.

That is a problem in Florida, where it is hard to tell if a private school is any good. There are no teacher certification or school accreditation requirements for private schools, no publicly available school test scores or school climate surveys. Of roughly 2,300 private schools accepting vouchers, 69 percent are unaccredited, 58 percent are religious and 30 percent are for-profit. Only 3 percent of voucher-accepting private schools are accredited, nonreligious and nonprofit, according to data on the state Department of Education website.

“Choice” and a voucher seemed like a solution to McCourt-Ostrand. Reality was different. Her daughter remained in her public magnet school. Fortunately, she is having a good year, but McCourt-Ostrand credits that to good communication with the school and getting an experienced teacher.

Oates, “the bus stop lady,” also understands the lure of vouchers. Her youngest, Russell Stanley, Jr., an eighth grader who plays football, attends a magnet school. One boundary proposal would have routed him to a high school with students from rival neighborhoods. Oates was concerned for his safety. “I would ask for a voucher” if that happened, she said. “I would not have allowed my son to attend.”

Then there’s the practical matter of who can access a private school. Never mind getting in, most do not provide transportation (many charters do not, either). Plus, vouchers often do not cover the full cost. While Oates entertained the thought, she also recently saw her electric bill hit $300 and her rent rise by $500. “It’s not a realistic choice for working parents with rent going up the way it is,” she said.

Which is why parents like Oates and Ashley Foxworth, a single mother, need the public schools to keep working. For Foxworth , who grew up as the daughter of a young single mom who moved a lot, the Hillsborough Country Public schools were a steadying force. “My school was my school and a safe place,” she said. It enabled her success. She graduated from Bethune-Cookman College, earned a master’s degree, then taught for over a decade in the same public schools she had attended. Today she is an educational tutor, adviser and coach.

Her son, Tristen, is now a precocious first grader in Hillsborough County Public Schools. “I want him to be a hawk,” she said, referring to a local high school’s mascot, a school she hopes will still be an option for him to attend.  Foxworth is anxious about what the new law will mean for public schools, and about Tristen’s shot at the same opportunities she had.

“These people who have the economic advantage of having their kids in private schools, they don’t see the effects in the public schools,” said Foxworth. “Choice is sold as a solution — when it’s not.”

This story about education vouchers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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