WASHINGTON – Low-income students in Florida who attended private schools using a credit scholarship program were more likely to go to college than their peers in public schools, according to a study released Wednesday.
The findings by the non-partisan Urban Institute stood in contrast with some of the recent studies of similar private school choice programs that produced mixed results. The analysis of the largest statewide private school choice program in the country was likely to energize the Trump administration in its effort to expand school choice across the nation, but also to irk critics who believe that such programs are ineffective and may discriminate against students.
“This will give a shot in the arm to (Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos and her campaign to expand school choice program,” said Mike Petrilli, the president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Researchers looked at some 10,000 low-income students in Florida who attended private schools and compared them to some 50,000 children with similar backgrounds and academic performance who never participated in the program. Tax-credit scholarships are a type of voucher program where scholarships are funded by corporate donations by companies that then receive tax credits.
Among students who attended private school in grades 3-7, 45 percent enrolled in a public college in Florida within two years of their expected graduation, compared to 39 percent students in public school. For students who attended private school in grades 8-12, 48 percent went to college, compared to 42 who attended public high schools.
“It means that for the kids who took advantage of this choice on average it worked out OK,” said Matthew Chingos, a co-author of the report. He added, however, that participation in the program did not improve students’ graduation rates. “These results are positive, but you don’t go ‘oh wow’ just yet.”
Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, criticized the study’s methodology as flawed, saying that students who had the energy and motivation to get accepted and remain at private schools may already have an edge compared to their peers in public schools. Abrams said the American education system must be improved by addressing income inequality, accessible childcare and health care and teacher pay in public schools and not by putting more students in private schools.
“This is a solution for some kids, but it can hurt other kids because it concentrates underperformers in their default neighborhood public school,” Abrams said.