Several months ago, the highly regarded Urban Institute released the first-ever analysis of college enrollment and degree-attainment rates of students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The scholarship is the largest private-school choice program in America, now used by 107,000 lower-income students, including 1,500 in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The news was good: The study found that Tax Credit Scholarship students are 15 percent more likely to enroll in college than comparable students in public schools, and 40 percent more likely if they’ve used the scholarship four or more years. If the students in the latter group first secured a Scholarship in early grades — which the vast majority do — they were 29 percent more likely to earn associate degrees.

The program is seeing these results even though the scholarship amount is two-thirds the cost of educating the same student in public school.

I note these findings in response to a column by former Sarasota
County school district administrator Ken Marsh.

Marsh said he wanted to dispel myths about public education in Florida, but instead he perpetuated them.

To date, 18 random assignment studies of “voucher” programs have gauged their academic impact on like students. Thirteen found positive outcomes. Three found negative outcomes. So when Marsh claims “there are no reputable studies to prove that private-school students learn better than public school students,” he’s wrong.

By law, Tax Credit Scholarship students must take state-approved standardized tests. A decade’s worth of test scores has been consistent about two things.

One, Scholarship students were, on average, the lowest performers in their prior public schools. Two, now in the schools their parents chose for them, they’re making the same learning gains as students of all income levels nationally. In other words: from struggling to steady progress.

People of all political stripes should applaud these results, but Marsh suggests that choice is somehow a right-wing thing. History doesn’t back that up either.

There are deep roots on the left for private-school choice, in both African-American and alternative school communities.

In the 1960s, liberal academics from Harvard to Berkeley supported choice as an extension of the War on Poverty. In the 1970s, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a lion of the Democratic Party, praised choice as an extension of America’s commitment to diversity and pluralism.

More recently, in 2016, Martin Luther King III headlined a 10,000-strong rally in Tallahassee against the lawsuit that unsuccessfully attempted to kill the tax credit program. Most of the participants were black and Hispanic.

These folks weren’t inspired by visions of privatization or ideologies that praise markets. They simply wanted to give parents of disadvantaged kids more power to do what wealthier parents do: Find the school that’s the right fit for their kids.

For many parents, public schools are the right fit. As Marsh notes, the Sarasota school district has much to be proud of.

But the same district he considers No. 1 isn’t stellar across the board. Last year, 73 percent of its white students passed state reading tests, while only 36 percent of its black students did. For the 10th-grade reading test, which students must pass to graduate, the percentage dropped to 27.6 percent for black students. That’s far below the state average for black students.

That’s not meant as a knock. It’s just one reason why many parents, even in a district as good as Sarasota’s, appreciate options for their kids.

Ron Matus is director of policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Gardiner Scholarship. He is a former state education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times.