Private school population increasing with or without benefit of scholarships

Patrick R. Gibbons

Florida’s non-scholarship private school student population saw the first significant increase since the 2003-04 school year. K-12 students enrolled in private schools without the aid of school vouchers in 2018-19 was also the highest recorded since the 2011-12 school year.

Students attending K-12 private schools without the help of tax-credit scholarships or vouchers increased 9 percent from 180,721 to 197,552 this year. The overall private school population, including students enrolled in preschool, increased 3 percent, from 370,116 to 380,295.

Step Up For Students collected private school enrollment data from various school choice programs since 2000. K-12 private school enrollment peaked in 2003-04 with 315,444 students, of which less than 8 percent of students enrolled with the help of a scholarship or voucher. Today, 41.1 percent of K-12 students use a tax-credit scholarship, voucher or ESA program to enroll in a private school.

The increasing proportion of students using scholarships to attend private schools may be due to several factors. Charter schools may be offering a compelling free alternative to a private education to middle class families who are otherwise excluded from most school voucher programs. This year more than 313,000 students enrolled in charters, nearly triple the amount a decade ago. The vast majority of students attending private schools on scholarship come from the tax credit scholarship, a program where the average household income for a family of four is just $25,000 annually. These lower income students, who would likely be unable to afford tuition without a scholarship, are now replacing middle income students.

This year the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship declined by 6,583 students, or 6 percent. McKay was down 349 students, or 1 percent. The Gardiner Scholarship, however, saw more than 6,735 students use the program to pay for services at private schools, a 14 percent increase.

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