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Florida Sets the Bar in Testing Compliance

Anyone wondering if the proliferation of scholarship tax credits leads to accountability issues should guess again. At least, that’s what we’re seeing with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

A report released in July 2013 by David N. Figlio, a researcher at Northwestern University, shows that not only are private schools compliant in reporting test data, but they are also compliant with regard to which test they use, and the performance data emerging recently seems to indicate that the students are doing as well or better than they would in public schools.

Figlio’s report was done in conjunction with the University of Florida and the National Bureau of Economic Research, as well as the Florida Department of Education, which sends the scores to Filgio for analysis. His 41 page report included all of Florida’s 40,248 tax credit students in 2011-12.

The study shows that the FLDOE received valid and legible test scores for 96.4% of Florida’s FTC students, and if it weren’t for some students having had their scores invalidated for enrollment anomalies, that report rate would be as high as 98.8%. In 2011-12, Florida’s public districts only had an average report rate of 98.5%, and only 3 districts in the state had 100% participation.

Even more encouraging, 100% of Florida’s FTC students took a test approved by the FLDOE. Florida accepts a variety of tests from its FTC students, but the first three in particular see the most use:

  1. Stanford Achievement Test (57.5%)
  2. Iowa Test of Basic Skills (22.5%)
  3. TerraNova (12.1%)
  4. PSAT/NMSQT (2%)
  5. ACT/PLAN (1.9%)
  6. Basic Achievement Skills Inventory (1.6%)
  7. Educational Records Bureau test (1.1%)
  8. Measures of Academic Progress test (0.5%)
  9. Metropolitan Achievement Test (0.3%)
  10. All other approved tests (0.5%)

In Figlio’s words: “There is strong evidence of high degrees of compliance with testing requirements for program participants…There is strong and compelling evidence that relatively low-performing students from relatively low-performing schools tend to be the students who participate in the FTC Scholarship Program…Finally, there exists compelling causal evidence indicating that the FTC Scholarship Program has led to modest and statistically significant improvements in public school performance across the state.”

His findings imply that Florida’s voucher program is a win/win for everyone involved: underperforming kids get the same or better test scores when they leave the public system, while the schools they were in previously also make advances in testing. It’s also a win for the FLDOE, which only has to pay private schools about $4,335 per pupil instead of paying public schools their required amount, which is well over $6,000 per student.

The popularity of the FTC Scholarship Program is growing, and there were over 51,000 students utilizing these tax credits in 2012-13. These students attended 1,330 different schools, which averages out to about 38 students per school. Imagine being the principal of a well-performing but financially struggling private school who suddenly gets an additional $164,730 to help pay teachers more, or even bring on more teachers and/or staff. Make no mistake, this education funding doubles as a modest economic stimulus.

Critics will point to the 73% of the receiving schools that are religious, saying that scholarships tax credits are a violation of the separation of church and state. A valid concern, to be sure, but given that the state of Florida provides funding stimuli to private colleges with the Florida Student Assistance Grant Program, we don’t see why K-12 education finance should be all that different. If Florida students who choose to go to college are entitled to scholarship money, Florida students who choose to stay in school at the primary and secondary level should be just as rewarded.

Another criticism frequently levied against voucher systems is that white families will use them to flee to segregated private schools with restrictive enrollments. The student composition of these tax credit scholarships actually shows the exact opposite: only 25% are white, while 33% are black and 35% are Hispanic. The diversity inherent in these compositions reflects the diversity of Florida’s student population, but also the diversity of those families seeking school choices.

States can benefit from contextualizing Florida’s model with their own, and the growing popularity of these types of structures proves that they are more than viable, they are attractive. Alabama and South Carolina, which are in the infant stages of a tax credit system, can basically take whatever they want from Florida’s law and build around it. Even states like Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, which have existing tax credit structures, but can fill in some gaps with whatever works for Florida. Likewise, whatever might be missing from Florida’s tax credit model could benefit from looking at the laws in another state.

For now, though, Florida’s model seems to be working just fine.



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