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Look to the Sunshine State’s Schools

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Look to the Sunshine State’s Schools

A recent Supreme Court ruling should encourage states to follow Florida’s direction in expanding school choice. July 15, 2020
Education

Last month, the Supreme Court delivered a victory for parents, religious liberty, and school-choice advocates in its Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue ruling, which overturns discriminatory applications of state tax-credit scholarship programs. In a post-Espinoza world, legislatures hoping to expand school choice should look to states that have successfully done so already. Florida is one of the best examples.

Though Florida’s constitution contains a Blaine Amendment—a provision, named after nineteenth-century congressman James Blaine, that bars state aid to religious institutions—the state nonetheless remains a leader in providing educational opportunities, whether public, private, or religious. Indeed, for the past two decades, Florida has been an innovator in the expansion of school choice. In 2017, as one of 17 states with tax-credit scholarship programs similar to the one sought by the plaintiffs in Espinoza, Florida led the nation with approximately $623 million in donations for its largest tax-credit scholarship program. Today, the state offers six school-choice scholarship programs in the form of tax-credit scholarships, voucher programs, and education-savings accounts. These resources are directed to economically disadvantaged students (Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Family Empowerment Scholarship); students in failing public schools (Opportunity Scholarship); students with disabilities (Gardiner Scholarship, McKay Scholarship); and victims of school bullying (Hope Scholarship).

In this year’s session, Florida’s legislature further advanced school choice with the passage of a bill that aligns the policies of the Tax Credit Scholarship—largely funded by corporate donations, rather than direct state funding—and the Family Empowerment Scholarship. In addition, the bill expands eligibility and the number of scholarship recipients. Students receiving a Tax Credit Scholarship, for example, can use it to attend private and religious schools, or subsidize transportation costs to other public schools. Meantime, the Family Empowerment Scholarship provides vouchers, funded directly from state coffers, to let low-income students attend private schools. Though the Family Empowerment Scholarship’s funding of private schools spawned opposition on constitutional grounds, many experts suggest that the Espinoza ruling ends much of the debate.

In 2019, the Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship served approximately 109,000 and 9,100 students, respectively. Due to popular demand, thousands of students remain on waitlists. The bill that Governor Ron DeSantis signed on June 25, however, expands student participation in the Family Empowerment Scholarship by 1 percent of the state’s public school enrollment, which will lead to an increase of roughly 29,000 new students for the next school year. If capacity for the Family Empowerment Scholarship exceeds demand, the household-income limit—currently 300 percent above the poverty line—will increase by 25 percent. Students who previously received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship will maintain eligibility in subsequent years, even if their parents’ household income increases. By such means, students with economically disadvantaged backgrounds are gradually receiving many of the same educational opportunities as their wealthier counterparts.

Evidence suggests that Florida’s support of school choice has also benefited the public. The Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found that for every dollar of tax revenue lost due to tax-credit scholarship contributions, taxpayers saved $1.49 in state education funding. An Urban Institute report showed that low-income students who used Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program to attend a private school were more likely to enroll and graduate from college than their public school counterparts. And a National Bureau of Economic Research study linked the increase of private-sector options to higher standardized test scores and lower absenteeism among those in public schools. These policies have helped Florida’s private schools flourish: the number of private schools in the state has grown from under 2,100 in 2009 to nearly 2,700 in 2019. And the benefits of school-choice expansion go beyond improvements on standardized tests. Choice empowers parents to select schools aligned with the values that they seek to inculcate in their children.

In his concurrence in Espinoza, Justice Neil Gorsuch states that the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause secures “not just the right to be a religious person, holding beliefs inwardly and secretly; it also protects the right to act on those beliefs outwardly and publicly.” In a free society, these protections extend to educational choice as well.

Governor DeSantis shows no sign of slowing down Florida’s choice-oriented education agenda. In the most recent legislative session, he signed into law both an expansion of school-choice scholarships and an increase in public school teachers’ wages. Florida’s executive and legislative branches have shown a commitment to expanding educational opportunities and quality, public and private. Following the Espinoza ruling, other states should follow Florida’s lead on how to institute school-choice initiatives.

Photo: dosecreative/iStock

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