Will universal school choice cause an exodus that will kill Florida’s public schools?

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by  | Apr 9, 2023

In a bold and undeniably transformative move, Florida’s education system appears to be headed for uncharted territory. This year, the state enshrined universal vouchers and education savings accounts into state law that will expand access to what is already a robust private school industry. The Sunshine State made history in 1999 when it became the first U.S. state to embrace vouchers, and has been a trailblazer ever since on charter schools and private education options. Now that Governor Ron DeSantis affixed his signature on House Bill 1, Florida’s education evolution is about to accelerate.

Depending on which side you believe, universal school choice in Florida will either catapult the state’s education system to dizzying heights of competition-driven innovation and achievement, or turn it into a smoldering crater of inequality and despair, with countless students trapped in the rubble. Opinions and predictions on the outcome vary widely, but one thing is certain: the eyes of the nation are fixed on Florida as it ventures into this bold new era.

In the coming years, this new system will give virtually every parent the freedom to choose schools for their children based on their needs and values, rather than being restricted by their pocketbook and geographical boundaries. The policy change could have a profound impact on existing public schools, the teaching profession, and the private school market in Florida.

Overall, the most notable impact will be at the individual level as families who couldn’t afford private school can now take advantage of the expanded voucher program. Public schools have long been dealing with that, though, as Florida’s school voucher programs have expanded several times over the last two decades.

Florida pioneered school vouchers

In 1999, then-Governor Jeb Bush signed the nation’s first school voucher program into law. Here’s how the LA Times reported the story:

Florida lawmakers today are expected to give final approval to the nation’s first statewide school voucher plan, which would provide thousands of low-income and minority students with tuition money to be used in private or religious schools.

The law is expected to turn Florida’s schools into a large-scale laboratory that will test a controversial concept debated in public education circles for years.

The Florida House approved the measure Wednesday by a 70-48 vote. Passage of the bill in the state Senate, which is likely today, would fulfill a campaign promise by Gov. Jeb Bush to revamp the state’s troubled education system by offering students a way out of low-performing schools while providing incentives for all of Florida’s 3,000 public schools to improve.

“We are going to have true accountability,” said Bush, a Republican who assumed office in January. “I will sign that bill with a smile on my face.”

Nearly a quarter of a century later, we’ve accumulated mountains of data and can easily see just how dramatically public schools were impacted by vouchers. And, in fact, that data shows in the immediate year or two following the new voucher program, a shift from public to private school involved 60,488 students, or about 2.2% of the 2.7 million Florida students enrolled at the time. That’s something, but not exactly a seismic shift.

But the data also shows an interesting trend before the state adopted its first voucher program: since 1991, the demand for private schools was already going up, even without vouchers:

Source: https://www.fldoe.org/schools/school-choice/private-schools/annual-reports.stml

Clearly, vouchers weren’t driving demand, they simply enabled it. In 1999, the state’s new voucher program provided many parents with the financial help they needed to make the switch. That’s why it’s interesting to note that since that time, through today, private school enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment has actually trended slightly downward.

The takeaway is that there obviously exists a certain number of families with students who believe their kids would benefit from private school, but simply can’t afford the tuition. When vouchers are available, those people jump ship. But overall, there has been no mass exodus from public schools, and in fact, depending on economic trends, private school enrollment over that span has waxed and waned:

Source: https://www.fldoe.org/schools/school-choice/private-schools/annual-reports.stml

Keep in mind, though, that these are just percentages, useful for comparing the “competition” between public and private schools. Vouchers made an impact for a small number of students who qualified for them, but did not result in a lasting, dramatic tilt that drained enrollment in public schools nor did vouchers siphon off public school budgets. It’s important to keep in mind that aggregate demand for both private and public schools has climbed dramatically as Florida has grown in population, and out state’s public school budget and per-pupil spending have only grown since then.

Will universal vouchers be different?

There’s no denying that the next few years will bring another measurable shift out of public education as more parents, already wary of public school controversies, explore private school options now that vouchers make them more affordable. But just how big will that shift be?  And will it last? The former chairman of Florida’s Board of Education thinks there will be some give and take.

“There will be a continuing exodus from government (public) schools as families realize their ability to truly choose what’s best for their kids,” says former Florida State Representative Tom Grady, an attorney who served on the Board of Education between 2015 and early 2023. “But it may not last, as those schools will compete – and get better or close.”

Indeed, Florida’s private school saga has had its ups and downs, with many schools opening with great fanfare only later to close their doors when they’re outcompeted by other private schools, or more likely, their free, public school alternatives. Note the dramatic dip in private school enrollment during the lean years after the Great Recession in the previous chart: even with vouchers, it’s hard to compete with “free.” When economic times get tough, fewer families can afford to send their kids to private school, vouchers or not.

The next few years, though, Florida can expect an increase in private school options as universal school vouchers expand the financial reach of many more families. Grady says that growth of private schools is to be expected, but warns there will also be a financial reckoning for many of those schools as competition eventually heats up and shakes out the weaker players in the market.  But he also notes that competition is a good thing for education, and things will eventually stabilize.

“Historically this has certainly happened in higher ed, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of it in K-12,” Grady notes. “However, with choice, there will be even more competition, so schools that get ahead of themselves on tuition, with equal or lower cost options in the community, will suffer a loss of enrollment. Again, competition will better manage these outcomes.”

Public School Impact

In the near term, public schools will feel the impact as much as anyone.  While the funding formulas are complex, generally speaking, the state’s new universal voucher system means that every student that exits a public school classroom for a private school takes thousands of dollars with them. The public school, however, still has to pay the same teacher and maintain the same building. Over time, those issues can get worked out as schools negotiate new contracts for teachers and budget for future costs. But the first few years might be tougher to manage, depending on how many families exit the public school system.

In an interview with Business Insider, Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest teacher union, said public schools are already struggling to make ends meet:

“Florida public schools are woefully underfunded,” Spar said. According to the Education Data Initiative, Florida spends $9,983 per pupil in its public schools, spending less than 41 other states. The state receives $3.5 billion each year — the third-largest amount of any state — from the federal government to help fund K-12 education.

Spar fears universal vouchers “will literally siphon money away” from public schools because it’s all under the same education budget. Estimated annual costs for the program range from $209 million to $4 billion. Meanwhile, the state senate appropriations committee has only proposed an additional $1.2 billion to cover the expansion of the already $1.3 billion program. If the cost exceeds that amount, “dollars are coming out of the public school budget,” Spar said.

Yet the cry from public schools for more money isn’t new. Consider this quote from then-Lt. Governor Frank Brogan, printed on February 21, 1999 in the Sunday edition of the St. Petersburg Times:

Another 22 years have passed and the rhetoric hasn’t changed much. Even so, DeSantis and the Florida Board of Education have nevertheless called for a substantial increase in overall public education spending, which includes another $200 million for teacher pay increases, and an increase of $252 in spending per public school student this year. The legislature will start the long budget negotiations process later this week, as House and Senate members convene to work out differences.

Regardless of the final budget numbers, public schools will be forced to make budget changes and adapt to compete with more private schools. Increased competition may lead to better learning environments, outcomes, and opportunities for all students. With private schools pioneering innovative learning environments, many public schools will also be challenged to incorporate innovative teaching methods, and modern technology. For conservatives like Grady, that’s the very point of school choice.

“The most profound takeaway will be the evolution of different schools with different models intended to attract different types of kids for different reasons – all competing for kids by offering better learning environments and outcomes,” he says. “Measurement will become even more important, and experimentation will explode as custom options arise.  Life will be better for Florida’s families.”

The next few years will be interesting. At the individual student level, those changes will be for the better, as more families can now afford better education options for their kids. And while public schools may struggle to adapt initially, they’ll ultimately become leaner, more competitive and better able to serve the needs of the kids who most want to be there.