Brief Evidence of a Catholic School Advantage in Nonpublic Scholarship Programs for Low-Income Families
An Essay for the Learning Curve
David Filigo
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In recent years, states and localities have introduced new scholarship programs offering opportunities for students from low-income backgrounds the opportunity to attend nonpublic schools, including religiously affiliated schools or nonreligious schools. Today, programs offering scholarships funded through school vouchers or tax credits operate in 29 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, reaching nearly 580,000 students, a change from a decade ago, when fewer than 200,000 students received tax credit–funded scholarships or vouchers.

One program—the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) Program—has rapidly expanded since its creation in 2001, increasing from 11,550 scholarship recipients in 2003–04 to 111,219 scholarship recipients in 2019–20. The program offers scholarships to students with household incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. A key question is whether scholarship students attending different sectors of nonpublic schools fare similarly in the program, which is especially important because in some scholarship programs, Catholic schools enroll a larger share of students than they do in other programs.

Key Numbers

  • Test scores of non-Catholic nonpublic school FTC recipients decreased relative to national peers: 0.3 percent in reading and 2.6 percent in math.
  • Test scores of Catholic school FTC recipients increased relative to national peers: 3.6 percent in reading and 2.1 percent in math.
  • Controlling for factors including student gender, student race or ethnicity, parental marital status, family income, household size, and student initial national percentile rank, Catholic school FTC recipients’ backgrounds did not affect their reading and math gains.
  • Attending a Catholic school under the FTC program had stronger advantages for students starting in the middle third or top third of the national test score distribution, but the advantage is still present for students starting in the bottom third.


These data show that students in the FTC program who attend Catholic schools are academically successful, regardless of their backgrounds, and show that observed differences in student test score changes are caused by attending Catholic schools rather than non-Catholic nonpublic schools.

Though families choose schools for many reasons—including religious affiliation—this analysis demonstrates that given the strong academic outcomes, a scholarship program that permits students to use scholarships at religiously affiliated schools should include and recruit Catholic schools in program design and implementation. And though test scores are not the only measure of academic success, these results also show that not all nonpublic schools are equal.

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Additional Resources

Research Areas Education
Tags Financial knowledge and capability K-12 education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy