Who uses school choice programs? - EdChoice
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Who uses school choice programs?

In America’s system of residentially assigned district schooling, the those who have the financial means exercise school choice by purchasing homes in districts that have high-performing schools. School choice programs break the link between housing and access to a quality education with the goal of expanding educational opportunity to all children, especially the most disadvantaged. At present, the school choice programs currently operating in 29 states plus Washington, D.C. primarily benefit children from low-income families and students with special needs.

More than 58,000 children nationwide are participating in one of the 21 educational choice programs specifically designed to aid students with special needs. The sections below provide available demographic data from voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs, excluding those that are limited to students with special needs.

(Note: With the exception of Arizona’s education savings account (ESA) program, for which demographic data is not available, all of the existing ESA programs are tailored to students with special needs. Moreover, according to the Arizona Department of Education, 58 percent of ESA users are students with special needs.)

 

School Voucher Programs

Excluding town tuitioning programs and voucher programs that are limited to students with special needs, six states plus Washington, D.C., have traditional school voucher programs. Not only are these programs targeted toward low-income families, but the available data concerning these programs indicate that the actual participants tend to have significantly lower income than each program’s eligibility guidelines allow.

Indiana

The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program limits participation to students from families earning up to 277.5 percent of the federal poverty line (150 percent of the federal free and reduced-price lunch income guidelines, or $36,900 for a family of four in 2017–18)), plus students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), students assigned to a low-performing district school or siblings of scholarship students. The state awards larger scholarships to students from lower-income families. Students from families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line receive 90 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding formula, while eligible students from families earning more than that would receive 50 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding.

According to the Indiana Department of Education’s 2017–18 report, 69.2 percent of voucher students came from families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line, indicating that it is the relatively more disadvantaged among eligible students who are participating.

Furthermore, the report finds that 82.9 percent of voucher students came from families earning less than $75,000 annually, 55.7 percent came from families earning less than $50,000 and 21.1 percent came from families earning less than $25,000, further demonstrating that Indiana’s voucher program disproportionately benefits students from disadvantaged families.

Louisiana

The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) limits participation to students from families earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty line ($61,500 for a family of four in 2017–18). According to the Louisiana Department of Education’s 2012–13 LSP Annual Report, “93 percent [of LSP students] qualified for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, meaning their household income fell at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line,” or $45,510 for a family of four in 2017–18.

This indicates that it is the relatively more disadvantaged among eligible students who are participating.

(Note: More recent reports did not contain information about the percentage of LSP students who qualified for a free and reduced-price lunch, nor did the most recent evaluation of the LSP.)

Maryland

Maryland’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) voucher program limits participation to students from families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($45,510 for a family of four in 2017–18). In 2017–18, voucher amounts ranged from $1,000 to $4,400 depending on the recipient’s household income and whether they had been enrolled in a public school in the previous year. The Department of Education’s report on the 2016–17 BOOST awards found 73.9 percent of the participating students belonged to families earning less than 130 percent of the federal poverty line (i.e., those who qualified for a free lunch under the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, or $31,980 for a family of four in 2017–18).

This indicates that it is the relatively more disadvantaged among eligible students who are participating.

North Carolina

North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program limits participation to students from families earning up to 246 percent of the federal poverty line (133 percent of income eligibility for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program), or about $60,500 for a family of four. According to a 2017 report by North Carolina State University, “Families that receive vouchers are among the lowest-income households in the state: The median household income is $16,213 for new voucher recipients and $15,000 for renewal recipients.”

This clearly indicates that it is the most disadvantaged among eligible students who are participating.

Ohio

Ohio has five voucher programs, two of which are designed to serve students with special needs. Of the remainder, the statewide Income-Based Scholarship Program is open to students from families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($49,200 for a family of four in 2017–18), the Cleveland Scholarship Program is open to students who reside in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (with priority given to families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level), and the statewide Educational Choice Scholarship Program is open to students assigned to a low-performing district school, regardless of the family’s income. (See the linked program pages for more specific details about student eligibility.) Although demographic data is not publicly available for these programs, the eligibility guidelines make the programs available to students from the most disadvantaged families in the state.

Washington, D.C.

D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) limits participation to students from families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($45,510 for a family of four in 2017–18). Although the U.S. Department of Education’s 2014 report on the OSP was not able to give precise figures about the income levels of OSP students, they did find that “Most OSP applicants live in the lowest income neighborhoods in the District,” with more than 40 percent of applicants living in the two wards with the lowest average household income in the city.

(Note: the most recent DOE report on the OSP does not publish data about the household income of applicants, nor data about where they live.)

Wisconsin

Wisconsin has four voucher programs, one of which is designed to serve students with special needs. Of the remainder, two serve students from low-income families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($73,800 for a family of four in 2017–18) in Milwaukee and Racine, and the Parental Choice Program serves students from low-income families statewide earning up to 220 percent of the federal poverty level ($54,120 for a family of four in 2017–18). (See the linked program pages for more specific details about student eligibility.) According to publicly available data on students in tested grades from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 74 percent of voucher students statewide come from households earning at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($45,510 for a family of four in 2017–18), indicating that the choice programs are serving students from among the most disadvantaged families in the state.

 

Tax-Credit Scholarship Programs

Tax-credit scholarship programs enroll even more students than the nation’s various voucher programs. TCS programs in Arizona and South Carolina are specifically designed for students with special needs. TCS programs in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Virginia limit eligibility based on income (among other restrictions varying by state). Additionally, Florida has a TCS program that is available to victims of bullying or abuse. The only states with TCS programs that do not restrict student eligibility based on income or special-needs status are Arizona, Georgia and Montana.

Although most of the 18 states with TCS programs do not collect demographic information about participating students, several states do, including the states with the two largest TCS programs (Florida and Pennsylvania), which combined account for more than half of the tax-credit scholarships awarded nationwide. What is evident from the data from these states is that the scholarships serve students from families that, on average, earn significantly less than the income eligibility cutoffs.

Florida

The Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship Program limits participation to students from families earning up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level ($63,960 for a family of four in 2017–18), with first priority given to students from families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($45,510 for a family of four in 2017–18). However, according to Step Up for Students, which administers about 99 percent of the scholarships, the average scholarship family’s annual household income is just 8.8 percent above the poverty level, indicating that it is the relatively more disadvantaged among eligible students who are participating.

Likewise, a recent study by the Urban Institute found that the Florida scholarship students were “triply disadvantaged” before joining the program:

The available evidence indicates that FTC enrolls students who are triply disadvantaged. They have low family incomes, they are enrolled at low-performing public schools (as measured by test scores), and they have poorer initial test performance compared with their peers.

Iowa

Iowa’s School Tuition Organization Tax Credit limits participation to students from families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line ($73,800 for a family of four in 2017–18). Nevertheless, according to the Iowa Department of Education’s 2017 program evaluation about three-quarters of scholarship funds were awarded to families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level:

The percentage of tuition grant award dollars granted to students in families with income between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline averaged 46 percent over the 2012-13 and 2016-17 school years. Students in families with income below poverty guidelines accounted for between 30 and 33 percent of tuition grant dollars while students in families with income between 200 and 300 percent of poverty guidelines (the program income limit) received 23 percent.

The report indicates that it is the relatively more disadvantaged among eligible students who are participating.

Nevada

Nevada’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program limits participation to students from families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line ($73,800 for a family of four in 2017–18). Nevertheless, according to the Nevada Department of Revenue’s 2017-2018 report, the average household income of families receiving scholarships from one of the three registered scholarship organizations ranged from $43,023 to $45,556. Although the family size is not reported, it is likely that at least half of participating families have incomes low enough to be eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program (185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $45,510 for a family of four in 2017–18), indicating that it is the relatively more disadvantaged among eligible students who are participating.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire’s Education Tax Credit program limits participation to students from families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line ($73,800 for a family of four in 2017–18). Nevertheless, according to reports submitted to the NH Department of Revenue by the state’s two scholarship organizations, 72 percent of participating families had household incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($45,510 for a family of four in 2017-18), indicating that it is the relatively more disadvantaged among eligible students who are participating.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s two tax-credit scholarship programs, the Education Improvement Tax Credit and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, each limit participation to students from families earning no more than $77,648 plus $15,230 per each dependent child. The limit is adjusted annually based on inflation, and students with special needs have higher income limits.

Information on the household incomes of participants is hard to come by, especially in recent years, but a 2009 report by the state’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee found that “Most [EITC] scholarships are being awarded to families with household incomes well below the statutory maximum,” which at the time was $50,000 plus $10,000 per dependent child. The report found:

According to data provided by DCED, the average annual income per family participating in the scholarship program is $29,000, or 48 percent of the maximum allowed for a family with one child in the scholarship program. Our survey of program participants confirmed similar findings.

This indicates that it is the relatively more disadvantaged among eligible students who were participating. There is no evidence to suggest that this dynamic has changed since 2009.

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