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Private School Choice Makes the Ultimate Grade

Private school choice is making the ultimate grade, improving students’ long-term outcomes by priming the college pipeline. That’s the take-away from a recent study of the nation’s largest private school choice program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, showing participation boosts later college enrollment. Meanwhile, reports released this summer evaluating the Opportunity Scholarship, North Carolina’s state-sponsored private school choice initiative for low-income students, show the Program earns high marks from parents and schools.

The report card is in: Private school choice is working for thousands of students and families. It’s true such programs are highly politicized, often taking a drubbing on the editorial pages of newspapers. But in the real world of people, not pundits, private school choice is wildly popular and growing rapidly. Why? Parents know these programs help their children learn and succeed. Researchers are finding such programs also raise students’ sights, propelling them toward a brighter future.

Consider what research on the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship shows. This study by Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute, the first to evaluate the effects of a statewide private school choice program on educational attainment, found FTC increased college enrollment by 15% for participants. Those who stayed in the FTC program the longest gained the most: Participating for four or more years increased college enrollment rates by up to 43%.

These are big college numbers, especially given students’ backgrounds. FTC students are “triply disadvantaged,” as the report makes clear. Students’ families have an average annual income of just $25,000. Their initial test scores are lower than those of their peers. They come from poor-performing public schools. This is not the stuff college dreams are made of.

Yet college is precisely where more of them are headed. Such news offers great promise for closing income-based achievement gaps, and also builds on what we already know about choice and educational attainment. Earlier research evaluating city-wide private school choice programs in Washington, DC, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin found participants graduated from high school at higher rates than their public school peers.

Florida’s new findings also bode well for younger statewide programs where data are just beginning to come in. In North Carolina, early numbers and feedback on the Opportunity Scholarship Program, now in its fourth year, are encouraging. For this 2017-18 school year, families submitted a stunning 10,577 new scholarship applications. The Program is fully subscribed for the first time ever: 8,208 students have accepted scholarships to attend private schools. Among 2016-17 recipients, 90% chose to renew their scholarships. More than 3,100 students still languish on a waitlist, hoping for a chance.

What’s behind dramatic growth? High levels of parental satisfaction surely play a role. Fully 94% of Opportunity Scholarship parents give their child’s private school a grade of “A” or “B,” according to new survey data released this summer by North Carolina State University researchers. Such high marks stand in stark contrast to parent perceptions of their child’s previous public school: just 27% assign that school an “A” or a “B.”

Leaders at schools participating in the Opportunity Scholarship Program share similarly positive perceptions. Nearly all—94%—of school leaders surveyed by NCSU researchers say they are satisfied with involvement from Opportunity Scholarship parents. School leaders are also strongly committed to equity and opportunity: 81% say helping more disadvantaged students is an important reason for participating in the Program, while 61% say achieving greater racial and socioeconomic integration is important.

Considered together, these numbers constitute a promising early report card for the Opportunity Scholarship Program. More feedback is on the way: An academic comparison of scholarship and public school students, offering a snapshot of test-based performance, is expected from NCSU researchers later this fall.

Such evidence on the impact of private school choice programs is compelling, and it’s mounting rapidly. It confirms what supporters already know to be true: School choice works. It’s yielding high rates of parental satisfaction. It’s opening doors of opportunity, first at K-12 schools, and later, on college campuses. Most fundamentally, it’s fueling the hopes and aspirations of disadvantaged students who need these things the most. That just might be the most important feedback of all.