Will universal school choice cause an exodus that will kill Florida’s public schools?

by | Apr 9, 2023

In a bold and undeniably transformative move, Florida’s education system appears to be headed for uncharted territory. This year, the state enshrined universal vouchers and education savings accounts into state law that will expand access to what is already a robust private school industry. The Sunshine State made history in 1999 when it became the first U.S. state to embrace vouchers, and has been a trailblazer ever since on charter schools and private education options. Now that Governor Ron DeSantis affixed his signature on House Bill 1, Florida’s education evolution is about to accelerate.

Depending on which side you believe, universal school choice in Florida will either catapult the state’s education system to dizzying heights of competition-driven innovation and achievement, or turn it into a smoldering crater of inequality and despair, with countless students trapped in the rubble. Opinions and predictions on the outcome vary widely, but one thing is certain: the eyes of the nation are fixed on Florida as it ventures into this bold new era.

In the coming years, this new system will give virtually every parent the freedom to choose schools for their children based on their needs and values, rather than being restricted by their pocketbook and geographical boundaries. The policy change could have a profound impact on existing public schools, the teaching profession, and the private school market in Florida.

Overall, the most notable impact will be at the individual level as families who couldn’t afford private school can now take advantage of the expanded voucher program. Public schools have long been dealing with that, though, as Florida’s school voucher programs have expanded several times over the last two decades.

Florida pioneered school vouchers

In 1999, then-Governor Jeb Bush signed the nation’s first school voucher program into law. Here’s how the LA Times reported the story:

Florida lawmakers today are expected to give final approval to the nation’s first statewide school voucher plan, which would provide thousands of low-income and minority students with tuition money to be used in private or religious schools.

The law is expected to turn Florida’s schools into a large-scale laboratory that will test a controversial concept debated in public education circles for years.

The Florida House approved the measure Wednesday by a 70-48 vote. Passage of the bill in the state Senate, which is likely today, would fulfill a campaign promise by Gov. Jeb Bush to revamp the state’s troubled education system by offering students a way out of low-performing schools while providing incentives for all of Florida’s 3,000 public schools to improve.

“We are going to have true accountability,” said Bush, a Republican who assumed office in January. “I will sign that bill with a smile on my face.”

Nearly a quarter of a century later, we’ve accumulated mountains of data and can easily see just how dramatically public schools were impacted by vouchers. And, in fact, that data shows in the immediate year or two following the new voucher program, a shift from public to private school involved 60,488 students, or about 2.2% of the 2.7 million Florida students enrolled at the time. That’s something, but not exactly a seismic shift.

But the data also shows an interesting trend before the state adopted its first voucher program: since 1991, the demand for private schools was already going up, even without vouchers:

Source: https://www.fldoe.org/schools/school-choice/private-schools/annual-reports.stml

Clearly, vouchers weren’t driving demand, they simply enabled it. In 1999, the state’s new voucher program provided many parents with the financial help they needed to make the switch. That’s why it’s interesting to note that since that time, through today, private school enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment has actually trended slightly downward.

The takeaway is that there obviously exists a certain number of families with students who believe their kids would benefit from private school, but simply can’t afford the tuition. When vouchers are available, those people jump ship. But overall, there has been no mass exodus from public schools, and in fact, depending on economic trends, private school enrollment over that span has waxed and waned:

Source: https://www.fldoe.org/schools/school-choice/private-schools/annual-reports.stml

Keep in mind, though, that these are just percentages, useful for comparing the “competition” between public and private schools. Vouchers made an impact for a small number of students who qualified for them, but did not result in a lasting, dramatic tilt that drained enrollment in public schools nor did vouchers siphon off public school budgets. It’s important to keep in mind that aggregate demand for both private and public schools has climbed dramatically as Florida has grown in population, and out state’s public school budget and per-pupil spending have only grown since then.

Will universal vouchers be different?

There’s no denying that the next few years will bring another measurable shift out of public education as more parents, already wary of public school controversies, explore private school options now that vouchers make them more affordable. But just how big will that shift be?  And will it last? The former chairman of Florida’s Board of Education thinks there will be some give and take.

“There will be a continuing exodus from government (public) schools as families realize their ability to truly choose what’s best for their kids,” says former Florida State Representative Tom Grady, an attorney who served on the Board of Education between 2015 and early 2023. “But it may not last, as those schools will compete – and get better or close.”

Indeed, Florida’s private school saga has had its ups and downs, with many schools opening with great fanfare only later to close their doors when they’re outcompeted by other private schools, or more likely, their free, public school alternatives. Note the dramatic dip in private school enrollment during the lean years after the Great Recession in the previous chart: even with vouchers, it’s hard to compete with “free.” When economic times get tough, fewer families can afford to send their kids to private school, vouchers or not.

The next few years, though, Florida can expect an increase in private school options as universal school vouchers expand the financial reach of many more families. Grady says that growth of private schools is to be expected, but warns there will also be a financial reckoning for many of those schools as competition eventually heats up and shakes out the weaker players in the market.  But he also notes that competition is a good thing for education, and things will eventually stabilize.

“Historically this has certainly happened in higher ed, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of it in K-12,” Grady notes. “However, with choice, there will be even more competition, so schools that get ahead of themselves on tuition, with equal or lower cost options in the community, will suffer a loss of enrollment. Again, competition will better manage these outcomes.”

Public School Impact

In the near term, public schools will feel the impact as much as anyone.  While the funding formulas are complex, generally speaking, the state’s new universal voucher system means that every student that exits a public school classroom for a private school takes thousands of dollars with them. The public school, however, still has to pay the same teacher and maintain the same building. Over time, those issues can get worked out as schools negotiate new contracts for teachers and budget for future costs. But the first few years might be tougher to manage, depending on how many families exit the public school system.

In an interview with Business Insider, Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest teacher union, said public schools are already struggling to make ends meet:

“Florida public schools are woefully underfunded,” Spar said. According to the Education Data Initiative, Florida spends $9,983 per pupil in its public schools, spending less than 41 other states. The state receives $3.5 billion each year — the third-largest amount of any state — from the federal government to help fund K-12 education.

Spar fears universal vouchers “will literally siphon money away” from public schools because it’s all under the same education budget. Estimated annual costs for the program range from $209 million to $4 billion. Meanwhile, the state senate appropriations committee has only proposed an additional $1.2 billion to cover the expansion of the already $1.3 billion program. If the cost exceeds that amount, “dollars are coming out of the public school budget,” Spar said.

Yet the cry from public schools for more money isn’t new. Consider this quote from then-Lt. Governor Frank Brogan, printed on February 21, 1999 in the Sunday edition of the St. Petersburg Times:

Another 22 years have passed and the rhetoric hasn’t changed much. Even so, DeSantis and the Florida Board of Education have nevertheless called for a substantial increase in overall public education spending, which includes another $200 million for teacher pay increases, and an increase of $252 in spending per public school student this year. The legislature will start the long budget negotiations process later this week, as House and Senate members convene to work out differences.

Regardless of the final budget numbers, public schools will be forced to make budget changes and adapt to compete with more private schools. Increased competition may lead to better learning environments, outcomes, and opportunities for all students. With private schools pioneering innovative learning environments, many public schools will also be challenged to incorporate innovative teaching methods, and modern technology. For conservatives like Grady, that’s the very point of school choice.

“The most profound takeaway will be the evolution of different schools with different models intended to attract different types of kids for different reasons – all competing for kids by offering better learning environments and outcomes,” he says. “Measurement will become even more important, and experimentation will explode as custom options arise.  Life will be better for Florida’s families.”

The next few years will be interesting. At the individual student level, those changes will be for the better, as more families can now afford better education options for their kids. And while public schools may struggle to adapt initially, they’ll ultimately become leaner, more competitive and better able to serve the needs of the kids who most want to be there.


  1. Frank Thompson

    Florida taxpayers want taxpayers choice and freedom to chose whether their tax dollars are given to for profit corporate entities running schools without any standards or accountability. Taxpayers who don’t have children want taxpayer choice and freedom to choose whether to fund these corporate for profit school entities and shouldn’t be forced to participate in these wealth redistribution schemes.

  2. dmmorrison

    Republicans have been trying to kill public education for decades. (They hate anything they can’t control.) Don’t let them get away with it.

    • coastie49

      Public education has been failing for decades, it needs competition to make it better.

    • Steve

      “Hate anything they can’t control”. Isn’t that exactly what you’re doing? Don’t you insist on being in control? Are you’re blaming us for exactly what the left is guilty of? If you’re freaking out now, just wait till we take this nationwide when we elect Ron to be our next president, replacing your feeble, demented and brain dead puppet of the extreme far left.

    • Anonymous

      The woke Progressives have killed public education without any help from Republicans

  3. WhatdoIknow

    Private schools going to take students with chronic behavior issues, low grades, special education students? Remember, teachers in private schools need no state certification. May not even have special education programs.

    • Ang Lunsford


  4. Asdf

    If you have fewer kids to teach you can fire the teachers and have the same student : teacher ratio.

    The fired teachers, if they are any good, can get jobs teaching at the private schools that those kids went to.

    We sent our kid to private school because of covid and she is taught by a former public school teacher that quit because she was also disgusted by covid policy (amongst other issues).

    So this idea of losing funding is absurd. You are also losing teaching obligations at the same time.

    What this is really about is that the public schools product is so bad nobody will pay for it and they are terrified of people having choice.

  5. Ang Lunsford

    There cannot be competition when public schools are not as free as private: they can turn kids away at will for behavior, do not have to meet state testing expectations for funding, are not hosting ESE and ELL students in the capacity that public schools are (and can magically say “oops, we don’t have the appropriate staff for your child, you’ll have to take them to public school, after funding has been sent from the state in the fall – leaving public schools to educate those students without funding at all.) They are not expected to provide food, clothing, tutoring, mental and physical health professionals, etc like public schools are expected to do. How can anyone believe that this is a “fair” competition until all schools regardless of funding are expected to meet all of the same expectations?

  6. N. Stanley

    Let’s begin with ones actual experience in Public Schools. Let’s speak of facts here. I personally endured in the public school system, versus private.
    I for one struggled with l Public Schools in 4th & 5th grade in the So. FL. Public School system. The teachers were burned out excuses as educators. They had their form of tenure, and they had no fears of dismissal for being demeaning and lazy. The coddled the book smart kids and called on them, and belittled those of us that suffered from the inability to grasp the texture of our lessons and books. Books are written by adults, some kids can’t understand the written word. Today it’s called a disease. It’s not, it’s just a variable, one size does not fit all.
    Anyway, my parents decided to enroll me in a private school.
    I began noticing a difference of how the teachers spoke to us, and took interest in me individually as needed. My grades improved, my attitude towards going to school improved. Unfortunately my parents divorced 2 yrs after beginning private school, and could not afford my 8th grade in Private School. So I found myself in hell in public school. I was exposed to Bussed kids from the other side of the district. They hated us white kids, and since so many of them had been held back for failing previous grades, they were much bigger kids, and they terrorized the white students. The principal did nothing about it regardless of talks with my parents and reports to the district school superintendent. It got so bad, i simply skipped school often with several other kids that were terrorized but the blacks. Finally, our old home had sold and my parents spent a portion of the proceeds to enroll me in private school the remainder of my days in 8th grade. I was saved from the Public School system, and attended private summer school, so as to catch up in time to be accepted into 9th grade.

    My mother could finally afford to move from our apartment in one school district, moved to a condo in a better part of town that had no busing issues, and prospered in a public High
    School that was outside the the jurisdiction of student busing. Unfortunately in today’s Society that option is not open to most, and as a result, we just offer kids little options. Even kids from decent areas are mixed with kids with many issues the parents don’t address. And our Public School’s just teach our kids about gender choices, sex, school lock downs, and our teachers liberal values as Govt knows best attitudes.

    • Christopher none Medvetz

      So I’m glad you learned to live in the real world at a public school.

      • Lisa C

        Private school teachers don’t have to be certified and are usually less educated. Parents aren’t aware of this disparity.

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