The chart at the top of this post shows Florida private school attendance by family income expressed as a percentage of the poverty rate.
Poverty rates vary by household size, but for a four-person household at or below 185% of poverty, that approximately equals an average of below $49,000; the top category is at or above $156,000 per year.
The average family income for students receiving a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is $32,835. There were just over 100,000 scholarships administered during the 2018-19 school year. It’s clear that without these scholarships, very few low-income families would be able to send their children to private schools.
Note, moreover, that Florida private schools have more low-income students than students from well-to-do families. Only about 10% of private school students nationwide qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. But in Florida, 28% of private school students come from the lowest income category. Coupled with clear evidence of academic progress for low-income Florida students overall (see the chart below), this represents nothing less than a triumph of public policy.
Our thoughts now should turn to the families in the middle of the U-shaped chart.
These families pay their taxes like everyone else, and we can safely infer from the distribution of the chart that their ability to pay school taxes and private school tuition is limited. Florida’s choice policies should include an advantage for the poor, but that advantage should take the form of a higher subsidy rather than an exclusion based upon family income.
The first generation of choice programs focused upon a finite number of empty seats at preexisting private schools. Choice supporters knew that the number of schools and seats would increase with demand, but the rate at which the sector could expand was unknown. A means test, therefore, gave low-income kids first shot at preexisting school seats.
Today, we live in a world in which the definition of a school is evolving and where a large percentage of American families are organizing themselves spontaneously into pandemic pods. An education savings account program permits an a la carte multi-provider approach to education.
Florida has a great need to lure back a great number of former teachers into education, if not necessarily back into school districts. In other words, Florida needs broader, more expansive, and more inclusive private choice policies.
Hopefully, 10 years from now, the chart will look like a “u” rather than a “U.”