Ep. 69: Surveying Florida Scholarship Families with Jason Bedrick and Lindsey Burke

October 30, 2018

Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program—a type of private school choice program—serves some of the most disadvantaged students in the state. In an effort to better understand how those families feel about the program and their schools, our researchers surveyed more than 14,000 parents and guardians of Florida children using tax-credit scholarships. As the largest-ever survey of participants in a private school choice program, this new report represents some of the strongest evidence to date of the views and educational priorities of parents exercising private school choice.

There are a few ways you can take in the findings of this report. 1. Listen or read an interview with the authors of the report. 2. Flip through our slide show of key charts and findings. OR 3. Download the full report.

Drew Catt: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. I’m Drew Catt and I’m here today with authors Jason Bedrick, EdChoice’s director of policy. And, Dr. Lindsey Burke, who is director of the Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education for the Heritage Foundation. They’re here to discuss their latest work, a report called Surveying Florida Scholarship Families: Experience and Satisfaction with Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarship Program.

Drew Catt: Thanks for joining us today Jason and Lindsey.

Jason Bedrick: Thank you for having us.

Lindsey Burke: Yeah, thanks much.

Drew Catt: Well great. So let’s start at the most logical place, which is where I always like to start. What inspired you to work on this piece? What did you set out to discover?

Lindsey Burke: Well that’s a great question. The inspiration for this project, and it really is a pretty in depth project, was the fact that we were able to look at the largest education choice program currently in operation in the country. So that provided a really exciting opportunity to examine how families are experiencing the program, what they see as the benefits, any challenges that might exist for them, and to overall conduct what is now the largest ever survey of participants in a private school choice program. So, there was just a really exciting opportunity there to leverage the number of families that are participating and to survey them to get some information that will help us as we think through how families are experiencing these options and what it means for policy makers in other states across the country.

Drew Catt: That’s awesome. So how many families responded? How satisfied are they with the largest tax credit scholarship, or even educational choice program in the nation?

Lindsey Burke: Yeah, so as I said a second ago, this is the largest every survey conducted. We had a good number of respondents. We distributed the survey to over 66 thousand Florida parents who have children participating in the program. We had 14 thousand complete responses that we then used to conduct this analysis. So, quite a few respondents for the survey.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, and we actually found that they were highly satisfied, not only with the program but also with the schools that they were able to choose, using the tax credit scholarships. So, when we asked them about how satisfied they were with the program 92 percent expressed satisfaction, including 89 percent who said that they were completely satisfied. Then when we asked about their chosen schools, 89 percent expressed satisfaction with the school that their child attends using the tax credit scholarship. Only 9 percent expressed dissatisfaction. So, I think it’s important also to note that these are incredibly disadvantaged students. They come from one of the lowest income families in the state. The average family income is only 25 thousand dollars. Most of them are below the poverty level. The average is actually just slightly above the poverty level. We have about 70 percent are Hispanic or African American.

Also, there’s other research showing that before entering the program, the students whose families are opting them into the scholarship are performing at a lower level on the state test then their demographically similar peers. A report from the Urban Institute called these students triply disadvantaged, and yet once they are in this program their parents are highly satisfied with the educational options that are available to them.

Lindsey Burke: Yeah. Just to underscore what Jason said, that means that about nine out of ten parents are satisfied with the school that their child’s attending as a result of access to this choice option. So it’s really just responses from the families showing that they are just highly satisfied with the options that are now available to them, which is I think a really important outcome of the program.

Drew Catt: Yeah, I would definitely agree that that is a very important outcome. So, I’ve heard some people say that within a school choice environment like Florida’s, parents will have a hard time finding and choosing schools. So how difficult was it for the parents who responded to your survey to find a participating school?

Jason Bedrick: Nine out of 10 families said that it was easy, including 73 percent who said it was very easy to find a school where they wanted to enroll their child using tax credit scholarships. Now, it’s important here to note a caveat, which is that we are talking about families that actually succeeded in finding a school. So that obviously is going to skew things a little bit, because we’re not surveying all families who are looking for a school. We’re surveying those that are participating in the scholarship program. But, that being said, we are talking about more than 100 thousand students who are participating in the program. It’s the largest tax credit scholarship program in the country, not only in terms of actual size but also per capita. We’re talking close to 5 percent of the student population participating in the program.

So, this means … I think this is actually very strong evidence that even for very low-income families it is not too difficult for low-income families to find educational options that work for their child.

Drew Catt: Yeah, so let’s talk about some of the reasons why families are choosing these schools. Having said that we still want to leave our listeners plenty of reason to read your report. So not going to try to ask you to reveal everything you’ve outlined in it, but what are the qualities that Florida tax-credit scholarship parents value when they’re choosing a school? And, just as important from my perspective, which qualities do they not care about as much?

Lindsey Burke: Yeah, that’s a great question. When we designed this survey we asked parents to list the top three factors that influenced their decision to have their child attend the school that they ended up opting into, and only two factors ended up being selected by a majority of scholarship families. So, two factors really rose to the top of things that families prioritize when they’re engaging in the school selection process.

The first was a religious environment for instruction. That was about 66 percent of respondents. The second was morals, character and values instruction. So, a sort of similar factor that rose to the top, and that was about 52 percent of respondents. These are two highly influential factors that parents really value. Then when you look down the line a little bit, the next thing that came up that was highly influential with about 36 percent of families reporting, was a safe environment. Parents are really looking for a school that will ensure that their child is safe when they’re there throughout the day. Then academic reputation followed after that with about 34 percent of families. Then small class sizes. So, these are the types of things that families are really looking for when they’re shopping around for schools, now that they have that ability to do so thanks to the tax-credit scholarships.

Now to your other question that you asked a second ago, “What’s something they don’t seem to value as much?” This was, I think, one of the most important findings that came out of this survey. The least important factor that parents listed was standardized test scores. So, 4 percent, just 4 percent of parents listed that as one of their top three factors. That’s a really important thing for policymakers to keep in mind when they’re thinking about how to design education choice options. That some of the things that parents really prioritize, school safety, religious instruction, morals and character and values-based instruction, these are the intangibles that are so critically important to families, but tests can’t always capture them very well. So in these findings, particularly again, I’ll just harp on the fact that this is the largest-ever survey. The fact that we now know from this very large survey of participating families in the tax-credit scholarship program, know what they prioritize are the, sort of, character, and morals, and value based instruction more than some of these standardized test measures, I think is really important to keep front and center in our minds, particularly as policy makers are thinking about how to design education choice options.

Jason Bedrick: Exactly, and to that point, I think, sometimes policymakers, we’re in this little bubble. There’s the old story about the drunk who’s looking for his keys under the lamp, the street lamp, because that’s where the light is even though that’s not where his keys are. We policymakers I think, sometimes, fall into that trap. Education has all of these different intangibles. It’s very, very difficult sometimes to say objectively that this or that school is performing better. One objective measure that we have are test scores. So, I think, sometimes there’s this tendency to rely far too much on the test scores.

Again, it’s not test scores even in all subjects, it’s test scores of usually just math and English language instruction. Parents are taking a much more holistic approach, where test scores are only one of a wide variety of things that they are looking for. So, I think we as policymakers need to have more humility. We need to trust families more. We need to see our role differently and the role of tests differently. The test scores should be used to inform parent’s choices rather than using test scores to decide whether, or not parent’s should be allowed to choose in the first place.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Indeed. It’s fascinating because I also heard that story of the person searching for their keys, or the analogy. I heard it as sociologist only looking at the things that they can measure, if you will, as to where the light is shining.

Jason Bedrick: Exactly.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So, a lot of folks might say that even if a school choice program allows a parent to choose a school that they deem to be a better fit for their child, transportation is way too big of a barrier for them to actually attend the school. How are the students of the scholarship families who responded to your survey getting to school?

Lindsey Burke: Right. So we included a question in our survey about transportation. We found that within the program users, that about 80 percent reported that a family member would drive their child to school on most days. So, the vast majority are getting there by car. A majority of parents though, about 57 percent said that they spend 15 minutes or less commuting. That was good news, that they’re not spending a ton of time commuting to school. This is a question that does come up quite frequently when we go to different states and think about how to have school choice options in place that really enable families to achieve everything that they want to achieve, including for some families they prioritize proximity to the school in which their children will enroll. For other families though they might prioritize a school that’s a little further away. This is, I think, an area where when we think about school choice design we can get a little creative. When you look at things like education savings accounts that enable a family to use their funds for multiple services, in some instances that could include transportation costs as well.

So, the Florida option is a tax-credit scholarship program and it is really just serving families in a phenomenal way that is meeting all of their needs, but there are other options out there that might provide a little bit of a roadmap for where you could infuse even more flexibility with spending into Florida’s options. So, things like transportation are some things that come to mind.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It sounds to me that when it comes to transporting the students to the schools that family matters. So is there anything that I haven’t asked or that we haven’t covered that you think our listeners should know about surveying Florida scholarship families?

Jason Bedrick: Yes. I think there’s one thing that’s very important in terms of the context of the program. There’s an argument that’s being made that, “Oh well this program, it’s really only helping students who they were anyway going to be going to a private school. So you’re just subsidizing families that were already going to be making this decision. You’re not actually providing new opportunities.” What we found is actually quite the opposite. Seven out of 10 respondents said that if the program did not exist, their child would be enrolled in some type of a public school, whether a district school, a charter school or a magnet school. Then 20 percent said that their child would be enrolled in some sort of private school. Nine percent said that they would homeschool.

What we’re finding is that actually a very large number, again seven out of 10 would be enrolled in some sort of a public school. So, a very large number of these families only have access to the school that they are enrolled in because of the scholarship. In terms of the students that are participating in the program, slightly more than half of them were actually enrolled in another school before the one that they currently attend. Of those, three out of five were enrolled in some, sort of, a public school. So, I think the proof is in the pudding here that this is a program that really is expanding educational options for students from some of the lowest-income families in Florida.

Lindsey Burke: And I just add one additional piece of information that we didn’t discuss is the way in which families are engaging with the new schools in which their children are enrolled. We asked families about the extent to which they participated in various activities prior to entering the tax-credit scholarship program, and we found that there were considerable increases in things like communicating with their teachers when they switched over to their new private school. Participating in school activities and volunteering and doing community service. Even reading to their child, parents reported that they did more of after they switched into their choice environment. So those were some other really important factors that have really stood out in the report.

Drew Catt: Well that’s amazing. So engagement and involvement. Well I think that does it. Thank you so much for joining us Jason and Lindsey.

Lindsey Burke: Thank you for having us.

Jason Bedrick: Our pleasure, any time.

Drew Catt: Props also go out to our listeners for taking the time to learn a little bit more about this study. And for those of you interested in parent studies and surveys here’s a little teaser for you. I’m co-authoring another parent survey report that we’ll be releasing next year. This one a cross-sector look at Arizona families. It will be very interesting to see how results from that survey compare to what Jason and Lindsey found and described to us in Florida, and what Evan Rhinesmith and I previously found in Indiana.
So to stay updated on the latest school choice research, legislative news and more please remember to subscribe to our EdChoice Chat’s podcast. Our team is always creating new school choice resources. If you want to be notified when those become available you can sign up to receive our emails on the web at www.edchoice.org. If social media’s more your thing, follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @edchoice. Well, that’s it for our shameless self-promotion. Thanks again for listening, and until next time, take care.