Private school choice policies are increasingly in the spotlight, in part because of support from the Trump administration and significant growth in these programs across the country. Florida’s program, the largest in the nation, has received particular attention as state and federal governments consider creating or expanding private school choice programs.
In a series of studies, we find that Florida’s private school choice program, the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship, increases college enrollment and degree attainment for participants. But recently, several Florida newspapers have reported on a less prominent finding of the study: that students typically only receive FTC scholarships for a short period of time. The Orlando Sentinel highlights that “61% of students in the scholarship program stay for two years or less.” (In an update to the original report, we found this number decreased slightly to 58 percent.)
For policymakers evaluating private school choice programs, this is an important number to consider, but it can be tricky to make sense of it without some context.
Leaving the scholarship program is not the same as dropping out of school
When a student stops using the scholarship, this does not necessarily mean they have dropped out of school. Students who receive FTC scholarships in one year but not the next may continue at their private school without a scholarship, return to the public school system, move out of state, graduate, or drop out of school.
So if leaving the FTC scholarship program doesn’t tell us very much about a student’s school enrollment status, why is it in our study? We wanted to understand whether students who received financial support for a longer period of time do better or worse than those who receive the scholarship for a shorter period of time. We find that receiving the FTC scholarship for more years was associated with even higher college enrollment and degree attainment rates than if a student only received the scholarship for one or two years.
If staying on the FTC scholarship longer improves student outcomes, then it’s important for policymakers to understand why most students use the scholarship for two years or fewer.
Why do students stop receiving the FTC scholarship?
Unfortunately, we do not have a lot of hard evidence on why 61 percent of students receiving FTC scholarships leave the program within two years. Our study relies on data collected on students’ enrollment and performance in Florida public schools and in colleges and universities. To understand why students stop receiving the FTC scholarship, we would need to survey or interview students and their families. We suspect, however, that there are a mix of reasons.
Students might be dissatisfied with their private schools or gain access to a preferred school. This could be their neighborhood public school or a charter or magnet school.
A recent example of this type of situation is the experience of Philadelphia fourth grader Janiyah Davis, who was invited to last month’s State of the Union address. Janiyah attended a public kindergarten but then attended a private school for first through third grade, with the help of a scholarship. After three years at that private school, she transferred to a new, high-quality public charter school. Janiyah and students like her move between school systems depending on their current needs and opportunities.
Florida families may also leave the FTC scholarship program because they are no longer eligible. The FTC scholarship is restricted to low-income families, but many families who experience poverty are not persistently in poverty. Instead, they move in and out of poverty and low-income status. Some students may therefore continue to attend their preferred private school but only receive the FTC scholarship for part of their time there.
Students may also “age out” of their private school and not be able to find a suitable private school serving the next grade level. In Florida, enrollment in private high schools is somewhat lower than elementary and middle schools. Our calculations from the Private School Survey indicate there are approximately 31,000 eighth-grade students in private schools, compared with roughly 28,000 ninth-grade students.
High schools are typically larger than middle and elementary schools, and private schools may have more difficulty operating at sufficient scale. High schools may also have higher tuitions, which makes them less accessible than private middle and elementary schools.
Normal student mobility patterns may also move students off the FTC scholarship. Students would become ineligible if they moved out of state or if they dropped out of their private school. We expect that some students leaving the FTC scholarship may have dropped out, but we suspect this characterizes only a small share of students. Our study finds positive effects on college enrollment and degree attainment, which makes it unlikely that broad dissatisfaction or dropping out is driving students to stop using the scholarship.
We need to learn more about students’ experiences with private school choice policies, particularly why they choose to leave the public or the private system. Our study of Florida finds that most students only use their state’s school choice scholarship for a short period of time, but the decisions driving that behavior are complicated and not immediately apparent from the data available. Understanding why students leave the program could inform policy decisions in Florida and around the country.