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Universal school choice won’t defund public schools

Opponents to Florida’s education savings accounts are misguided. Data show their predictions of doom for public education haven’t occurred.

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  • | 4:30 p.m. April 12, 2023
  • Sarasota
  • Opinion
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When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1 into law in late March, Florida became the largest state in the country to adopt universal education savings accounts. 

ESAs are publicly funded accounts that families can use to pay the costs of their child’s K-12 education, including private school tuition, tutoring, learning supplies and many other services.

Joining the ranks of Arizona, West Virginia, Utah, Iowa and Arkansas in adopting universal school choice, Florida is now giving all families the choice to withdraw from public school and opt for an ESA of about $8,700 per child if it fits their needs.

While state residents already are accustomed to a robust landscape of education choices, this bold new program will usher in a new era of customized education in Florida. 

But state Democrats and education associations continue to voice their opposition to the school choice expansion. Their main objections are to the high potential cost of the program — with one estimate as high as $4 billion — and to the possibility that the ESAs will siphon money away from public schools. 

Both concerns are misguided.

The precise cost of the new ESA is hard to predict because fiscal analysts don’t know how popular the program will be with families. But astronomic estimates, such as the $4 billion figure published by the Florida Policy Institute, are far too high. 

Students using private school choice scholarships and who switch out of public schools already account for half of FPI’s $4 billion estimate — but both these populations are already funded by taxpayer dollars. In other words, funding ESAs for these students wouldn’t require new money.

FPI’s $4 billion figure also features some questionable premises, such as the assumption that 12% of newly eligible public-school students will apply for the ESA when it becomes available in July. 

Data from 27 school choice programs in Florida and 18 other states reveal that the rates at which eligible families opt to use ESAs are usually lower. In an analysis published in Education Next, Marty Luekin and Michael Castro of EdChoice note that “for most programs, take-up rates remain below 2% for the better part of a decade.”

To be sure, Florida’s new ESA program will impose costs on taxpayers because of its availability to home school families and families already enrolled in private schools who weren’t previously eligible for school choice scholarships. This population isn’t currently receiving public dollars, and many parents will jump at the opportunity to have their education costs covered by an ESA. 

But up until now, these families have been paying twice for their child’s education. They pay property and sales taxes to support a public education system that doesn’t fit their child’s needs and then reach into their own pocket again to pay for private school tuition. For these parents, an ESA allows them to pay once for the education that’s best for their child.

The state’s school choice opponents also warn that the ESA program will strip funds away from public schools. But under Florida’s enrollment-based funding formula, public education dollars already leave school districts when students move or transfer. ESAs just allow families the option to take those dollars with them even if they leave public education. At the same time, any school that has a student and their associated funding leave also has one less student and their associated costs to teach. Over time, that balances out.

Moreover, recent decisions of school choice-friendly governors belie the claim that school choice programs defund public education. Concurrently with his support of school choice expansion, DeSantis has devoted $2.8 billion to teacher salary increases alone since he took office and is still pushing for $200 million more. 

Similarly, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently signed a universal ESA bill into law while also raising the state’s minimum teacher salary by $14,000. Far from stripping money away from public schools, ESAs have meant a windfall for the traditional system.

Florida’s new universal ESA will empower the families that need it, whether that’s because their child has a disability requiring specialized services or because they want their child getting more one-on-one attention with a math tutor. But there’s scant evidence to suggest it will lead to a mass exodus from public schools that strains school district budgets or takes money out of teacher paychecks.

Adrian Moore is the vice president of Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota. Christian Barnard is a senior policy analyst.


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