Academy Prep Center of Tampa is a rigorous private middle school for students who qualify for need-based scholarships. Modeled after Nativity Mission Center in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, students attend school 11 hours a day, six days a week, 11 months a year.

Seventeen years ago, a group of business and community leaders in Tampa Bay decided to renovate rather than raze an old, abandoned public school. The spooky building with stately red brick once served generations of Cuban and Italian kids in Tampa’s historic Ybor City neighborhood. The group wanted to restore its former glory by transforming it into a premier private middle school for black and Hispanic students. With help from a then-fledgling school choice program, that’s what happened.

Today, Academy Prep graduates routinely matriculate to top high schools and colleges. And as a new paper published by the R Street Institute spotlights, it’s but one example of the kind of civil society engagement unleashed by the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the nation’s largest private school choice program. (The scholarship is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)

Written by Victoria Bell (she authored it while associate policy director for educational opportunity at the Foundation for Excellence in Education; she’s now assistant director of K-12 education relationships at The Philanthropy Roundtable), the case study explores an underappreciated dynamic core to private school choice. Creation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in 2001 energized parents, educators and an incredibly diverse mix of non-governmental entities to expand educational opportunities for Florida’s most disadvantaged students.

The scholarship allowed existing private schools to be a bigger part of the solution. It spawned creation of new private schools. It empowered educators to create new models. It empowered parents to choose them, or not. Bell offers examples of all that. Community groups, like the one behind Academy Prep, where nearly every student uses a tax credit scholarship, got involved. So did hundreds of churches and faith leaders. So did hundreds of corporations, thanks to a funding mechanism that allowed them to donate towards scholarships in return for tax credits. All of this happened voluntarily, with government offering incentives but an otherwise light touch.

The result: Better outcomes at less cost. The program now serves more than 100,000 low-income students, with an average annual family income of $25,743. And the academic outcomes are encouraging. A study released last year by the Urban Institute found scholarship students are 20 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than like students in public schools. This, even though other rigorous research shows scholarship students were, on average, the lowest performers in their prior public schools. And that the scholarship is worth 59 percent of total per-pupil funding for students in public schools.

The scholarship is a “successful example of public policy and civil society combining to solve a problem,” Bell concludes. “More Florida students than ever before have access to educational environments that are equipping them with the skills they need to pursue the American dream.”

I’m especially grateful Bell included the scholarship program’s impact on Catholic schools. As she notes, the scholarship is a key reason Catholic schools in Florida, unlike Catholic schools in virtually every other state in America, are not continuing to disappear. Enrollment has remained steady in recent years, and even ticked up slightly. Knowing how much Catholic schools have delivered high-quality education to low-income families for generations, this trend line has yet to get the recognition it deserves, either in Florida or beyond.

Bell focused on the tax credit scholarship, but there’s no doubt Florida’s ever-expanding menu of choice programs is stoking similar reactions. More than 130,000 students are enrolled in private pre-schools with help from Florida’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program. More than 30,000 students with disabilities use the McKay Scholarship to attend private schools. Another 13,000 use the Gardiner Scholarship (also administered by Step Up), an education savings account for students with special needs.

The Gardiner Scholarship is still shy of its sixth birthday, but there are already 10,000 vendors in its orbit, from tutors to therapists to private schools. As this new wave of choice expands, look for an even more amplified response from civil society – and even more hands on deck.

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