Ep. 121: Choice in the States – Florida with Doug Tuthill

July 9, 2019

In this episode of our Choice in the States series, Director of Policy Jason Bedrick chats with Doug Tuthill from Step Up for Students in Florida. They discuss an array of Florida’s scholarship programs, pending lawsuits and more.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m Jason Bedrick, Director of Policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our state policy series. Today we’re going to be focused on Florida, and I’m delighted to be joined by Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up for Students, which is the largest scholarship organization in the country. Doug, great to have you.

Doug Tuthill: Thank you, Jason. Appreciate it.

Jason Bedrick: So, before we get into the tax-credit scholarship program that Step Up for Students participates in, let’s talk a little bit about the history of school choice in Florida, starting with the Jeb Bush administration. What was the program that he championed and what happened to it?

Doug Tuthill: Yeah, Governor Bush passed a program in his first year as governor, and it was designed to help kids get out of low performing district schools. They could have two options. They could either go to a private school with a voucher, or they could attend another public school that was higher rated. That was really the first modern choice program that included a choice outside of the school district. We had magnet schools before that and we had some within district choice, but this was the first program that included a private school option.

Jason Bedrick: That program, though, was very quickly subject to a legal challenge.

Doug Tuthill: It was. The teachers’ union filed suit virtually the day it became authorized, and it was in litigation all the way through 2006. It finally was ruled unconstitutional by the Florida supreme court. They ruled the private school piece unconstitutional. It turns out that the public school piece is still in place. To this day, you can still transfer from an F-rated school in Florida to another public school under the original program. But the private school component of it was ruled unconstitutional. Very controversial decision.

Jason Bedrick: Controversial and also different than many of the other states, right? Most of the school choice lawsuits have focused on the Blaine Amendment, which a lot of states have which says that public funds cannot go to religious schools. Actually, in most cases, state supreme courts find that because the funds are flowing to the students and not directly to the schools, that there’s no Blaine amendment issue. But in Florida, it was challenged under the Uniformity Clause. What does that mean?

Doug Tuthill: Well, it’s interesting. As the case went from the trial to the appellate, it was primarily focused on Blaine, but before it got to the farthest supreme court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Zelman case out of Ohio. I think that caused the Florida Supreme Court to pause and get concerned about whether the Blaine challenge was going to be legally defensible.

Jason Bedrick: Right, because in Zelman, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that there was no First Amendment issue, precisely for the reason I mentioned earlier, that the funds are going to the students and the families can choose from a wide variety of religious or secular options. There’s no establishment of a particular religion. There’s no support to one particular religion. These organizations, religious or not, all have an equal ability to attract students and therefore attract the dollars that the families are using.

Doug Tuthill: Right. Very well said, sir. The Florida Supreme Court looked around and found this uniformity clause and decided they would use that as their rationale to strike down the private school piece of the program. Basically, they said what you’re doing is you’re identifying failing schools and your remedy is to allow these kids to go to private schools. That’s not an appropriate remedy under the Florida constitution. If the schools are underperforming, you need to fix those schools, not necessarily create a separate program. The problem with that rationale is there’s nothing in the Florida constitution that prohibits a program that will allow kids to take public funds to go to private schools, and there’s nothing in the uniformity clause that would prohibit that. You know how courts are adjacent. They oftentimes are very political. This was a fairly political decision, but we’ve had to live with it for the last 12 years now.

Jason Bedrick: So, the Uniformity Clause says that Florida must run a uniform system of free public schools. The way the court interpreted it in the Bush v. Holmes decision was that uniform pertained not only to those schools but that uniform also meant exclusive. That it could not run a second separate system. Everything had to be in that public school system and the government couldn’t operate anything outside of it.

Doug Tuthill: Right.

Jason Bedrick: Whereas other states have actually interpreted the Uniformity Clause in their own state constitutions to mean that this is a bare minimum. You must, at the very least, do this, but you may do other things in addition to this.

Doug Tuthill: No other court in the country has followed the same logic of the Florida court. It’s been an outlier. It’s based on some legal rationale which was pretty much created out of whole cloth by the Florida Supreme Court.

Jason Bedrick: I know that there are still some pending lawsuits that we’ll get to later in the podcast. We’ll have an opportunity to revisit the state of jurisprudence regarding the uniformity clause and which direction that might go, particularly after the last election. Let’s talk first about another program that was enacted around the same time in 1999, and that’s Florida’s John McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities. What is that? How does that work?

Doug Tuthill: That’s a program for kids with learning disabilities, maybe some discipline, emotional issues. They can get a publicly funded voucher that would allow them to attend a private school. Interestingly enough, when the Florida supreme court ruled the original Bush program unconstitutional, they included a footnote to say that this logic doesn’t apply to the McKay program basically. Again, there’s no rational reason you would do that. That’s simply a political decision because the special needs McKay program is fairly bipartisan and popular. The Bush program was very partisan and unpopular with the Democrats. Because the McKay program was so popular in a bipartisan way, they carved out an exemption for that particular program.

That program today serves about 30,000 kids, and they are attending private schools across the state of Florida. It’s a very successful program, and it’s very popular with families that have kids whose needs fit the criteria of the program.

Jason Bedrick: It’s seen a tremendous amount of growth. In the first year, there were only two students participating. By 2001, you had just short of a thousand. Now, as you mentioned, more than 30,000 students receiving scholarships that are on average about $7,000 to attend the school of their choice. The largest school choice program in the country is the one that your organization runs. Step Up for Students provides more than 99 percent of the scholarships under the Florida tax-credit scholarship program. What is this program and how does it work?

Doug Tuthill: It was passed in 2001, and we started enrolling the first kids in 2002. The way it works is that corporations in Florida that have a tax liability, and there are various categories of taxes that are covered by this. Alcohol excise tax, insurance premium tax, corporate income tax, oil and gas tax, a couple of others.

Jason Bedrick: Many of these taxes were added later. I should say that the credits on those taxes were added over the years since 2001, when it was originally passed.

Doug Tuthill: Yeah. We believe in continuous improvement, and every year we evaluate what’s working and what’s not working and what our improvement opportunities are. Over the years, as the program has grown, we’ve had to expand the tax-credit opportunities to allow us to continue to grow and to fund demand. Let’s say I’m an alcohol distributor and I owe $5 million in alcohol excise tax. I can get a dollar for dollar tax credit from the state by donating to a qualified nonprofit. Step Up, as you said, is the largest one in the country by far.

Let’s suppose that company then donated $5 million to us, that would be $5 million credit that they would get so they wouldn’t have to pay that five million dollars in excise tax to the state. There’s no savings to the corporation. It’s just a pass through. They collect the tax dollars, and they owe the state. Instead of just paying the state, they pay us. Then families apply to us. It’s a means tested program. The average family of four makes $25,000 a year. About almost 80 percent are minority, either Hispanic or black. They can take the scholarships to any one of almost 2,000 qualified schools in the state of Florida. So this year, we’ve got about 100,000 kids on scholarship, and it’s very popular.

We have almost 15,000 kids on an approved waiting list. That was kids who had applied for the scholarship. We had evaluated the application. We had approved them, but we didn’t have money to fund them, so we put them on a waiting list. We also had another 70,000 families who started an application, but we wouldn’t let them finish the application because there was no opportunity for them to be funded. There was no chance. We actually turned off the online application in late June and had 170,000 applications started in assistance. That gives you an indication that while we’re proud of the fact that we’re serving 100,000 kids, I’m pretty confident that if we had enough resources, we could serve another 100,000 kids. We’ll probably get into what the future looks like, but a big task for us moving forward is to continue to look for funding mechanisms so that we can meet the full demand of the program, which in my estimation, is probably north of 200,000 kids.

Jason Bedrick: That’s amazing. Back in 2003, you only had about 15,000 kids in the program. Now you’re serving more than 100,000 and you’ve got more than 15,000 on the waiting list. The growth has been exponential and one of the reasons for that is because you have, I don’t want to it a unique feature because there’s a few other states that have it, but you have an escalator clause. What is that?

Doug Tuthill: Every year that the program that we raise 90 percent of the cap and the program is capped every year, but every year that we raise 90 percent of the cap in terms of tax-credit contributions, the cap goes up 25 percent. The numbers start to get big after awhile. The cap this year for 2018 is $872 million dollars, and if we get to 90 percent of that, then it would go up another 25 percent. I don’t have a calculator in front of me, but that would be well over a billion dollars.

Jason Bedrick: Right so anybody familiar with the miracle of compound interest understands how that can very quickly grow. How many years have you hit the cap?

Doug Tuthill: We have hit the cap … We’ve had an escalator every year since the escalator was passed and it was passed in 2010. So for the last 8 years, we’ve had the 25 percent increase. I should say this year, I do not think we’re going to hit the 90 percent threshold. This will be the first time ever. We’re going to raise probably about $680 million, and that’s not going be enough to trip. That’s not going to be 90 percent of 872, which is why we’re talking intensely with the new governor and with the legislative leadership to look for new ways to fund the demand.

Jason Bedrick: And what is the average scholarship size?

Doug Tuthill: The average scholarship size this year is about $6,800.

Jason Bedrick: You mentioned that the families that are participating on average for a family of four, they’re earning about $25,000. What is the actual eligibility?

Doug Tuthill: It’s based on the free and reduced lunch program. Basically, 100 percent scholarship is 200 percent of poverty and below. You can get a 50 percent scholarship up to 260 percent of poverty below. We have a sliding scale. We got a lot of pushback from working class families that said we just missed the cutoff, but we’re a working class family and we need a little bit of help. A couple of years ago, we put in a sliding scale so that 200 percent to 260 percent of poverty will still give you a scholarship, but it won’t be a full scholarship. Really, the law also requires us to prioritize the highest poverty kids. We give them very few of these partial scholarships because every year we have so much demand from the highest poverty families that that really takes up almost all the money.

Jason Bedrick: You mentioned going back from time to time and tweaking the program to make sure that it’s operating as efficiently and as fairly as possible. One of the things you’ve also done is change the program to allow certain categories of students to apply for a scholarship at any time throughout the year. Who are those students and why was that change made?

Doug Tuthill: I guess the best example would be foster kids because the way the foster system works, you never quite know when a child is going to go into the foster system, and oftentimes that requires them having a fairly radical change in their home environment, and sometimes it requires a significant change in their schooling environment. We wanted to give those foster families as many tools as possible to help meet the needs of those children. We set aside money every year for foster kids who come in and out of the program throughout the school year. Again, it’s a way to acknowledge that foster kids face unusual challenges. We wanted to give those kids and their foster families some tools to work with to help meet those kids’ needs.

Jason Bedrick: Roughly how many students are participating that are foster kids that applied outside of the normal window?

Doug Tuthill: We hold on average about 500 spots per year for foster kids in that situation. I don’t know off the top of my head how many of those positions are taken up every year, but on average, based on our projections, we anticipate having to fund about 500 kids a year.

Jason Bedrick: Dependents of active-duty military personnel are also given that leeway to apply any time during the year for a similar reason, right? You never know when they’re going to be deployed, when they’re going to be sent to a base in Florida or something like that.

Doug Tuthill: Right.

Jason Bedrick: So, it’s important for them to have that flexibility.

Doug Tuthill: Right.

Jason Bedrick: Before we get into the Gardiner Program, I wanted to mention one of the most recent programs in Florida is the Hope Scholarship program. How does that work and what makes it different from the original tax-credit scholarship program?

Doug Tuthill: Well, it’s different in a couple ways. The qualifications for the Hope Scholarship are kids who have been bullied in a district school. So, it’s not needs-tested, but it’s really focused on children feeling unsafe and needing a safer environment. The legislature passed a new program called the Hope Scholarship. It’s also a tax-credit funded program, but it’s funded by the sales tax that individual consumers pay when they purchase an automobile. It just turns out that I actually needed a car this fall, and the program became operational October 1st. On October 1st, I went in and bought myself a little Honda Civic. When I signed all the paperwork at the end, I signed a paper that redirected $105 of my sales tax to Step Up for Students. [That] is the most I could redirect.
We have collected in the first month and a half about $3 million so far in sales taxes that automobile purchasers have redirected to Step Up. The way this program works is families whose children have been bullied will file a piece of paper with the school principal saying my kid has been bullied. The principal does an investigation. Then because of how the investigation turns out, if the parent says I still feel like my kid has been bullied, then they qualify for the Hope Scholarship. They send us the paperwork documenting the incident of being bullied. We notify the state, and the child now becomes eligible for that scholarship, and they can do two things with the scholarship. They can either take the scholarship to go to a private school, or they can get a scholarship for transportation funding to go to another public school.

Jason Bedrick: Actually, as part of the original tax-credit scholarship, they can use a portion of their funds for transportation as well, correct?

Doug Tuthill: That is correct. For the larger tax-credit program, you can get your tuition fees at a private school paid, or you can get a $750 transportation scholarship to attend a school outside of your school district. As you know Jason Bedrick, in Florida, our school districts are all county systems. They’re huge. If you want to attend a school in another school district, you might have to drive 30, 40, 50 miles. This would provide some financial support for low income families that want to take advantage of that opportunity.

Jason Bedrick: Now, Florida is a pioneer when it comes to school choice. It was the third state to adopt a tax-credit scholarship program after Arizona and Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, it was the same year. Then it was the second state after Arizona to adopt an education savings account, which in Florida are known as Gardiner scholarships. Could you tell us a little bit about the Gardiner Scholarship program, which your organization also administers?

Doug Tuthill: We actually have two educational savings accounts, but let me talk about the Gardiner first, and if you’ll let me, I’ll talk about the second one.

Jason Bedrick: Absolutely.

Doug Tuthill: The Gardiner Program is for kids with deep-end special needs. We like to call them unique abilities. It’s named after former state Senate President Andy Gardiner and his wife Camille Gardiner who have a child with Downs Syndrome, I believe, and they’ve been amazing in terms of advocating on behalf of these children. So, the way the program works is a family … These are deep=end special needs or unique abilities: Downs Syndrome, Spina Bifida, Autism. Most of the kids are on the autism spectrum. There’s five or six other categories of various kinds of challenges.

Jason Bedrick: Cerebral Palsy and so on and so forth.

Doug Tuthill: Yeah. They submit paperwork to us, usually from a doctor or another qualified professional, certifying that the child qualifies for one of these categories. We notify the state and the state then forwards us money for the families to spend, usually on average, it’s about $10,000 for a Gardiner Scholarship. It goes into a family-specific bank account, and that family can then spend that money on state authorized products and services. These could be occupational therapists, physical therapists, tutoring. It might be services from a private school or a public school or a charter school, district school or charter school. They also can purchase curriculum materials, books, educational software. They also can purchase hardware to support the educational software.
It’s really designed to give families the ability to customize a whole portfolio of learning opportunities for their children. As you know, kids with these kinds of challenges have very specific needs that have to be addressed. This gives families the spending flexibility that they need to provide their children with a high quality customized education. The program’s been very popular. We’ve got about 12,000 kids on the program this year, and there’s another 1,400 on a waiting list. That also has an active waiting list, and that program has proven to be very popular.

Jason Bedrick: It was only about 1,500 students in the first year, after it was enacted. It’s grown almost tenfold since 2015, which is an incredible amount of growth. How exactly do the families use these accounts? Walk us through the process. They apply to your organization, they’re approved, and then what happens?

Doug Tuthill: So, as I mentioned, we notify the state. The state then forwards us money for each family that goes into an account just for that family. When they first passed the program, the families had to spend out of pocket for these services, and then they would submit receipts to us and we would reimburse them. We’re increasingly moving to a process where they would be able to go onto an online platform, like an Amazon type of platform. They’ll have products and services on that platform, catalogs of various services. They’ll be able to purchase their services through the catalog and it will direct pay. The goal here is to try to minimize parents having to pay out of pocket because a lot of families couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket anyway for the reimbursement.
It also allows us to control for fraud and inappropriate purchases because everything on the platform will be pre-approved, so we don’t have to worry about having people purchase things that they thought were going to be approved and it turns out not to be approved, or people purchasing things that really shouldn’t be purchased. We’re spending millions of dollars on this platform. We’re still building it out, but ultimately we’ll have a one-stop shop platform for families, so all the purchases will be done online. We’ll do all the invoicing for them. For things like technology, it’ll be shipped to their house.

They have a lot of things that they’re dealing with, Jason, when you have a child with spina bifida or downs syndrome or autism. So, the more we can take burdens away from the families and make it as easy as possible to access the products and services they need for the children, the better it is for the families.

Jason Bedrick: So, this platform that you’re building, and I believe it’s with SAP Ariba, is that correct?

Doug Tuthill: That’s correct. That’s the main platform that we’ve licensed, and we’re doing a ton of customization. To take a platform which was designed for the private sector, the e-procurement platform, and customize it for the K–12 space.

Jason Bedrick: And this platform as you mentioned, it’s going to improve the financial accountability to the taxpayer, making sure that all of the expenses are actually for approved categories of educational expenses. It’s also going to make it a lot easier for families to find educational products and services for their own child, but I believe there’s another aspect of it that’s also going to help families assess the value of these products. Is that correct?

Doug Tuthill: Yeah. As you know, when consumers make good choices, it’s good for the consumer, but it’s also good for the overall market. It sends signals to providers about what’s working, what’s not working. We want to make sure these families have all the information they need to make as informed decision as possible. We are also building tools, data sets, data analytics, that will allow families to get really good information on what their children need and also be able to look at various providers out there to get a sense of what provider might be the very best match with their particular child.

This is going to be a long term endeavor. I think you see a lot of other disciplines which are starting to use machine learning, artificial intelligence tools, to help people make better decisions. We’re going to go to that same path and the idea, like I said, is to try to give families as many tools as possible including good information about their child’s development and also what possible choices they might make for their children that would be the best fit for where their child is at any one moment in their development.

Jason Bedrick: That’s fantastic. I very much look forward to seeing that online, so to speak. I’d like to talk a little bit about the litigation that the programs are still facing, but first you mentioned there’s actually a fifth school choice program in the state. It’s another ESA. What is that and how does that work?

Doug Tuthill: This one’s pretty interesting. It’s a reading ESA, and it’s only for kids who are enrolled in public schools, either a district school or a charter school. It’s for kids in grades three through five who are well-behind in reading. The idea is that the state legislature wanted to give these families a little extra money on additional reading support for their children. Whether it’s hiring after school tutors or summer programs, families will have the ability to spend that money in a variety of different ways to customize additional reading support for their children. The fact that it’s targeted only for kids in public schools I think is trying to create space here school districts won’t see educational savings accounts and won’t see other kinds of choice programs as a threat but, in fact, as an asset.

It’s been fun watching school districts look at this program and begin to embrace it just to start creating their own after school programs to help meet their children’s needs. A lot of instances, you have teachers who are already doing a lot of after school work for free, so it gives teachers a chance to get paid for some of the work that they’re doing. It also allows teacher to be entrepreneurial. Teachers can set up their own tutoring programs. Because parents now have purchasing power, it allows teachers to be entrepreneurial, to create programs, and then have a direct financial relationship with the families so the families can pay them directly to help your kids get better support for reading.

We’re pretty excited about it. This is a brand new program. I hope that it grows in the future years, but it really began to muddy the waters in terms of public versus private and all those very uninteresting debates. It really brings everybody together under an EdChoice umbrella to figure out how do we provide children with the very best learning opportunities. So we’re excited about that program too.

Jason Bedrick: That of course providing students with the very best learning opportunities should be the purpose of public education. Unfortunately I think some people confuse public education with one particular delivery mechanism, which we traditionally call public schools. The ESA program tax-credit scholarships, these are programs that really are not antithetical to public education, but are really an expansion of public education and their different means of fulfilling the true purpose of public education, which is to ensure that every single child has access to a quality education, and really to an education that’s the right fit for each child. Unfortunately though, that’s not the way everybody sees things, and there still are some ongoing lawsuits against some of the school choice programs in the state. Why don’t you walk us through the school choice lawsuits that are still being litigated.

Doug Tuthill: Well, the primary lawsuit in Florida actually has its genesis as an adequacy suit. As you know, we have a long history in the United States of adequacy suits where a group of citizens will sue the state arguing that the state is not fulfilling its obligation to provide an adequate public education system. Basically, they’re looking for more money. In the Florida suit, not only are they looking for more money, but they’re also saying that one of the reasons there’s lack of money is because of programs like the tax-credit scholarship and the McKay scholarship. This particular lawsuit isn’t just looking for more funds for district schools, but also is looking to wipe out the choices programs that allow children to attend schools or other kinds of learning opportunities outside of the control of the school district.

That case was argued in front of the Florida supreme court on November 8th, so we’re waiting to hear what the Florida supreme court is going to do with that particular case. But that’s the one major piece of litigation right now that’s outstanding that really includes the choice programs as a target.

Jason Bedrick: Just to be clear, which choice programs are the targets of this lawsuit?

Doug Tuthill: The tax-credit program and the McKay program.

Jason Bedrick: But not the Gardiner?

Doug Tuthill: No.

Jason Bedrick: Right. The tax-credit scholarship just survived another legal challenge. What was McCall v. Scott about?

Doug Tuthill: Yeah, we were sued by the state teachers’ union and I think the League of Women Voters, which is basically a subsidiary of the state teachers’ union in Florida. We were sued in 2014, arguing that the program was unconstitutional because it violated uniformity in Blaine. That case went all the way to the Florida supreme court and it was dismissed because the courts claimed that the plaintiffs never had standing. As you know, you can’t file suit against somebody unless you can have some minimum threshold of harm.
In order to have standing in the suit, in order for the suit to have some sort of legitimacy, there has to be at least some possibility that you suffered harm and you’re looking for some redress for the harm that you suffered from. This suit said that public education is being harmed by these programs and therefore we want to rule them unconstitutional. The judges at the trial and at the appellate level and at the supreme court level said do you have any evidence that there’s harm. The plaintiff said no, but we just think there is. Because they had no evidence that there was harm, they didn’t have standing, so those cases were dismissed.

Jason Bedrick: Right, and actually to the extent that there is any evidence, what is the evidence of competitive effects of the program?

Doug Tuthill: You know the answer to that, but I’ll tell you anyway. The effects are actually quite positive. Our friend David Figlio at Northwestern did a study, as you know, and his colleagues and found that those district schools that are most impacted by the tax-credit program, that is large numbers of kids in those particular schools are actually leaving those schools and going on to the tax-credit program. The academic achievement as measured by state standardized test scores increases in those particular schools. I think there’s a couple reasons. You mentioned competitive effects and Dr. Figlio said yeah the competition from this program is causing the district schools to raise their game. They’re getting better because they’re starting to lose kids onto the scholarship and they want to maintain market shares so they’re getting better.

Jason Bedrick: Right, and that particular study, there could be a confounding affect when the students actually start leaving, depending on who those students are. He looked at the year that it was enacted, but before any students moved and found that there was actually a statistically significant positive affect. The affect was most concentrated around district schools where they had more private schools in the area. They had more competition. Those schools saw greater improvements even before the program went into effect but after was enacted. That’s how he measured the competitive affect. You mentioned there might be another explanation.

Doug Tuthill: Right. It turns out that Dr. Figlio has also found that we attract the highest poverty, lowest performing, kids in the state. So for a lot of schools, we significantly reduced their concentration of poverty. As you know, poverty is probably the biggest challenge we face in public education. Those kids don’t bring the same kind of social capital that other kids bring to the table. When you reduce the concentration of poverty in the school, it also has very positive effects. I know you’re getting a competition affect, but I’m sure in some schools you’re also getting a benefit of reducing concentrations of poverty, which makes it easier for the schools to deal with the other kids. Those probably two things going on in various ways: the competition affect and reducing concentrations of poverty.

Jason Bedrick: One of the criticisms you often hear of school choice programs is that there’s creaming. The families that are most invested in education are going to take their students or the best and brightest out of the system. The public school system is then going to have the hardest to teach students and less dollars to actually educate them. These other students are going to go on, the so-called better students, are going to go on to the private schools. But what the longitudinal studies from, I believe it’s Florida State University that does the annual assessment these days, what they find is quite different from that. What is it that they find? Who are the students that are leaving the district schools and what is their level of performance vis-a-vis students that are demographically similar?

Doug Tuthill: Like I mentioned before, both FSU and Figlio before them all found that the kids that come into the program tend to be the lowest performing kids in the schools in which they leave the district school in which they’re attending. So, we’re doing the opposite of creaming. We’re not taking the kids who are doing best in those schools. We’re taking the kids who are really struggling. We do a lot of spotlights of families on our blogs. The stories are almost always the same, Jason. You read a lot of them.

Kids struggling in school, oftentimes have failed a couple of grades because they’re so frustrated academically, they oftentimes are discipline problems. They’re unmotivated. They’re discouraged. They don’t want to go to school anymore. The parents are really pulling their hair out. What am I going to do with this child? It tends to be a mess. They get them on the scholarship. They get them into another environment. Oftentimes the schools at the private schools are much smaller. A lot of them are faith-based schools. There’s this loving community that embraces the child. Because the schools are smaller, they’re oftentimes able to provide much more customized instruction and support systems. We see all these turnaround stories.

I think the stereotype and the accusations from the opponents are actually completely wrong. Simply giving families the opportunity to make a choice and to put their child in an environment that is more effective benefits the child and it’s really taking children whose lives are really on a downward spiral and helping turn them around.

Jason Bedrick: And these students who are demographically and socio-economically in the lowest tier are then, just after a few years, performing at the national average with the students that are demographically better off than they are. The longer they are in the program, according to the Urban Institute study, the more likely they are to graduate from high school and go on to college, and they’re doing those in higher numbers than their demographically similar peers who are in the district school system.

Doug Tuthill: The Urban Institute study, as you mentioned, showed that kids who were on the program four or more years are 40 percent more likely to go to college than the similar demographic control group. It’s fairly impressive. I really think the magic cause is a lot of it’s choice. We all know the old saying of nobody ever washed a rental car before they returned it because they don’t own it. What I’ve seen over my 10 plus years of president of Step Up is that families in the choice programs have enormous amount of ownership over the choices they make. Once they have that sense of ownership, it changes a lot of things. It changes motivation. It changes levels of grit and determination and aspirations and hope. All kinds of wonderful things happen when people have a greater sense of ownership over their own education, their children’s education. I think that’s the magic sauce. It sounds like I’m reinventing the wheel because people have known this for a long time, but when you give people freedom, when you give them choice, they have a greater sense of ownership and they’re more committed to making those choices effective.

Jason Bedrick: Certainly what you’re saying is consistent with the survey of the scholarship students that we recently conducted. You can find that on the EdChoice website. It’s called Surveying Florida Scholarship Families. It finds not only more than 90 percent satisfaction with the programming with their chosen schools, but also finds that families say they were much more likely to help their child with their math homework, read with their child, communicate with their child’s teacher, and so on, and be involved in school activities once they were participating in the program relative to the school they were attending before the program. I think there’s definitely a lot of empirical evidence to support your claim that ownership has a lot of do with the improvement.
I think also going back to the story that you were telling, it has to do with the right fit. These students that are leaving the district schools are the lower performing students, not necessarily because they’re not as intelligent or they’re just bad students or not motivated, which is not obviously the case that you were making. They’re just not in a school that is the right fit for them. Because you have this mismatch, they’re not performing well and it’s the students that are not performing well whose parents are more likely to say you know what, we have to move my child to another environment.

If they’re in that environment and they’re thriving and they’re getting good grades, the parents are generally saying, you know, “This is a free education, and my student is doing well. I’m going to leave them there. But if she’s being bullied, if she’s struggling, if the classes just aren’t speaking to her, then it’s time to move.” Once this parent is able to find the environment that’s the right fit, then their child can really thrive, and so the whole system ends up doing better because each individual child has access to an environment that’s a better fit.

Doug Tuthill: Yeah I like to think it’s the match that’s the key. We talk about failing kids. We talk about failing schools. The reality is that Harvard fails for lots of kids. For some students, Harvard is a failing school because it’s not a good match. The match is really the key thing. Some kids do really well in big schools. Some kids need a small school. Some kids do great in a secular school. Some kids need a faith based school. Some kids do great in a Montessori school. Some kids need a back to basics school. It really is about matching the child to the learning environment that best meets their needs. That’s the key.

By the way, Jason, you and your colleagues have done great research on the Florida program, and I appreciate that. This is anecdotal. The other thing that I love about the whole notion of choice and ownership and hope is the affect it has on the entire family. Jack Coons has been writing about this for 60 plus years.

Jason Bedrick: And a lot on your blog.

Doug Tuthill: And on our blog in the late 80s. He’s in the late 80s and still as prolific. He’s an amazing guy. I wish I had a dollar for every time I talked to a grandmother who said you know what, I never graduated from high school. My grandchild got on the scholarship. My grandchild is so excited to go to school now. I’ve seen this amazing turnaround. I’ve been so inspired by my grandchild that I’m now going back and working on my GED. I’ve heard that story over and over again. That’s just … I get goosebumps every time I say it because it’s so powerful to see the effect on the entire family ecosystem. When there really is a sense of we can break the cycle of generational poverty. We can actually have hope that this whole thing can change. It’s infectious. It’s like despair is infectious, but hope is also infectious. Watching hope spread through a family and watch it transform the entire family is probably the most rewarding part of this work.

Jason Bedrick: My guest today has been Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up for Students scholarship organization. Doug, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Doug Tuthill: Thank you, Jason. Appreciate it.

Jason Bedrick: You’ve been listening to another edition of EdChoice Chats. Remember you can subscribe on SoundCloud, iTunes or Stitcher. Follow us on social media @edchoice and sign up for our email on our website, edchoice.org. Thanks for tuning in. We’ll catch you next time.

I hope you enjoyed listening to our interview with Doug Tuttle from Step Up for StudentsI now have a very brief update for you. Since we recorded that podcast more than six months ago there have been some exciting developments at Florida State Legislature in 2019. First there was a fund boost for the Gardiner Scholarships, the Gardiner ESA of 23 million dollars. So, that means more students who have disabilities will have access to ESAs for their families to customize their education. And secondly, there was the addition of a new program, Florida’s fifth school choice program, the Family Empowerment Scholarships, which is a voucher program that was created to address the wait list. 

There were 14,000 students on the tax-credit scholarship program wait list. This new voucher will provide 18,000 vouchers for those students and others who are interested in participating and it increases the number of vouchers available each year. So, Florida continues to be a pioneer and a leader on nationwide in providing educational choice to students and we very much look forward to the day when all students in Florida and nationwide have access to educational choice.