Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students got a pat on the back Monday at a State Board of Education workshop, albeit from a not-unexpected source. But the brief discussion that followed the presentation was a reminder that the oversight for these educational endeavors, even one that is now a decade old and the largest of its type in the nation, can benefit from open-minded questions.
The attaboy came from Scott Jensen, senior governmental affairs advisor for the American Federation of Children. (Full disclosure: John Kirtley, founder and board chairman for Step Up for Students, the nonprofit that oversees Florida’ tax credit scholarships, is AFC’s vice president.) The board workshop was focused on choice options in Florida, both public and private, and Jensen highlighted the state’s reputation as a national leader in a choice movement that has moved from fringe to mainstream in just the past decade.
The Florida scholarship is a model for other states, Jensen said, because its per-student scholarship amount – $4,011 this school year – is enough to give low-income parents real options. (The average for other states with such programs, he said, is between $1,500 and $2,000.) It has financial and academic reporting requirements. And it is a verified money saver for state taxpayers, according to, among other reputable sources, OPPAGA – the Florida Legislature’s respected research arm. “That has been helpful to us around the country as we encourage other states to adopt these programs,” Jensen told the board. “They’re very reluctant, given no track record in their states, to say it’s going to cost money or save money. The good work that’s been done in Florida is very valuable to that.”
But as we all know, the good work isn’t done yet.
BOE member John Padgett politely but directly raised a question that’s worth asking: How academically proficient are former scholarship recipients when they enter — or in some cases, return to — the public school system? Padgett mentioned that he has discussed these issues with Kirtley. “On my to-do list, and I think on his to-do list, and I would encourage the department, I think on a regular basis we need to know the academic results in the first year when those kids get back into the public schools. We don’t know that yet. Hopefully it’s very good. But if perchance it’s not, we need to know that as a state.”
His point is well-taken, and the current testing requirements lay the foundation. Under state law, scholarship students must take a nationally norm-referenced test approved by the Department of Education and most take the Stanford Achievement Test. To date, those test results have revealed two important pieces of the puzzle: 1) The students who leave public schools to attend a scholarship school are among the lowest academic performers in the schools they leave behind; and 2) Those students are making the same annual gains as students of all income levels nationally and, last year, marginally higher than the low-income students who remain in public schools.
Padgett’s question gets at a third element: If and when these students return to a public school, are they achieving on or above grade level? That’s a fair question. We look forward to getting the answer.