Ever since the seeds of education choice were planted in Florida more than 20 years ago, opponents have predicted that giving families more options in their children’s education would cripple public schools. While choice has blossomed, public schools have proved the naysayers wrong.
A recent column by the League of Women Voters is the latest to perpetuate the myth that parental choice threatens public education.
First, let’s dispel some misconceptions.
The constitutional case against vouchers is dubious at best. You won’t find in the Florida Constitution any language prohibiting school vouchers or requiring public schools to be the sole means of education. Although the Florida Supreme Court conveniently redefined “uniformity” to strike down the state’s first voucher program in 2006, the idea was invoked by opponents in two other cases, in 2017 and 2019, but failed to persuade courts to end the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students or charter schools.
Education savings accounts (ESAs) funded directly from the state’s budget are nothing new in Florida. They’ve been around since 2014, when the Gardiner Scholarship for special-needs students was created. Gardiner’s ESA is the biggest of its kind in the nation, currently serving over 17,000 students — and it has received nearly universal, bipartisan support.
Private schools that accept choice scholarships are subject to numerous accountability mandates from the state. These include requiring that all scholarship students in grades 3 through 10 must take a nationally norm-referenced test approved by the Department of Education, that these test results must be submitted to an independent research organization, and that schools must provide parents quarterly progress reports and publish qualifications of teachers.
But private schools also are subject to a different kind of accountability than most public schools are — the kind you get from the bottom up through parental choice. It represents the most immediate and direct form of accountability: If the schools can’t deliver, they lose students and the money that follows them. That kind of accountability is in short supply in district schools, particularly in low-income areas, where parents generally can’t afford to move to a neighborhood with a better school or pay tuition for a private school.
Private school scholarships do not divert funds from public schools any more than a WIC food voucher spent at Publix diverts funds from Walmart. Furthermore, eight different independent analyses over the years have determined that Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship not only doesn’t drain money from public schools, it actually saves tax dollars that can be used to enhance them. That’s because the value of each scholarship (which now includes the Family Empowerment Scholarship program) is less than what the state spends per pupil on public schools.
The argument that vouchers harm public education has twice been rejected by Florida courts. But the best evidence comes from the performance of public schools themselves, which in recent years have reached heights never before attained:
* Education Week currently ranks Florida No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, its highest position ever.
* Florida ranks No. 1, No. 1, No. 3 and No. 8 on the core reading and math tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), when adjusted for demographics.
* Florida recently climbed to second in the nation in the percentage of graduating high school seniors who pass Advanced Placement exams.
* Florida’s high school graduation rate, which barely cracked 50 percent at the turn of the century, is now at 90 percent.
In a study released last week, researchers at the University of Arkansas found a positive association between a state’s amount of education choice and its NAEP performance. Florida ranked 35th in “education freedom” in 2000; it moved all the way to seventh in 2021, the largest gain by any state. The two student populations who received the most education choice in Florida during that time — low-income students and students with disabilities — far outperformed the national average on NAEP scores.
More choices, better outcomes. That’s a win-win for Florida and its families.
Scott Kent is assistant director of strategic communications for Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers five state education choice scholarship programs.