Q&A – How Many Floridians Are Using Florida’s School Choice Program?

Q&A of the Day – How Many Floridians Are Using Florida’s Expanded School Choice Program? 

Each day I feature a listener question sent by one of these methods.   

Email: brianmudd@iheartmedia.com  

Social: @brianmuddradio 

iHeartRadio: Use the Talkback feature – the microphone button on our station’s page in the iHeart app.    

Today’s Entry: @brianmuddradio Heard you say 350k students will use vouchers. How does that compare to prior yr? Also, what’s the additional cost? 

Bottom Line: This Thursday marks the start of the new school year in Palm Beach County, and with it, a record number of students making use of school choice. Florida’s new universal school choice law, which took effect July 1st, marked the first time in Florida’s history all Florida families had access to school choice. We now know how many families have opted to make use of the expanded choice program which effectively is providing about $8,700 for families to use at the school of their choice per student. Estimates for participation were all over the map during the debate in the state session. One of the leading arguments used in opposition to the policy, by choice opponents, was that the program would cost too much.  

In early February I studied the studies conducted on this topic in an effort to discern what the real cost would be. The range in cost estimates was approximately $600 million to $4 billion in additional spending based on the study. That’s a huge gap with a huge difference in opinion about how many parents and students will seek to use the expanded school choice program. At the time I reasoned that the best estimate was $2.5 billion. That was based on these estimated for student use of vouchers: 

  • Low estimate: 73,028 additional students  
  • High estimate: 486,855 additional students  
  • My estimate: 304,284 additional students 

So, what do the actual numbers look like? In the previous year there were a total of 124,063 students which made use of school vouchers. According to guidance from Step Up for Kids, a non-profit which works with the state on Florida’s school voucher program, approximately 350,000 students will use school vouchers. Should that prove to be accurate, that’s an increase of 225,937 students making use of vouchers this year which would carry an additional cost to the state of $1.96 billion over last year.  

Impressively, the Florida Legislature appears to have proved to be the most accurate of all in estimating the usage of Florida’s universal school choice program. The legislature budgeted an additional $2.2 billion to cover the cost of school vouchers this year, with an additional $350 million in reserves in the budget to cover potential overages to their estimate. Obviously, the reserves won’t be needed and in fact, the Universal School Choice program, derided by critics as unaffordable, appears as though it will come in about $200 million under budget for the 2023-2024 school year.  

Importantly for families who’re making use of Florida’s expanded school choice program, the process appears to have been smooth and successful for those making the transition from one school to another through the program. I’ve previously hypothesized that voucher use would likely be lower initially as many students may prefer to remain in schools they’re familiar with and with friends they’ve made. That will be worth watching and perhaps budgeting for going forward as students moving between schools, in addition to new students, potentially opt for vouchers in higher numbers and percentages.  

You’ll recall how loud the opposition to universal school choice was early this year. As the Florida Education Association stated: Florida’s families overwhelmingly count on their neighborhood public schools as the best place for their children to get the education they deserve and need. HB 1 will siphon billions away from the schools where nearly 90 percent of Florida’s students learn and grow. This bill will leave children with fewer resources in their already underfunded classrooms and fewer teachers and staff to meet their needs. Sending tax dollars to unaccountable, corporate-run private schools is just wrong. This bill is a political priority of a governor who puts his political ambition ahead of Florida’s families. For the greater than two and a quarter million students who opted for a choice for this upcoming school year, it’s hard to reason how their choice equals nothing more than the realization of a political priority of DeSantis’. That doesn’t even make sense – which is often the case with the Florida Education Association.  

Generally, when high profile laws take effect, no news is good news. That often means the policy is effective. That the implementation of the new law, and issues associated with it, isn’t a huge story as we’re about to start a new school year is telling. At the onset of Florida’s school choice program, the state managed to strike a balance of providing educational choice for all Florida families without a systematic disruption to traditional public schools and they managed to come in under budget in the process. How often do you hear about that happening in government?  

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