Bill Expanding School Choice in Florida Is a Big Win for Florida’s Students and Families

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In welcome news for Floridian families and students, Florida’s House and Senate recently said “yes” to more education options for families. They approved a bill that would expand the state’s school choice scholarship program by extending its income eligibility threshold to middle-class families, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seems likely to sign it into law.

The program offers tax credits to private organizations that sponsor scholarships for public school students to attend independent schools of their choice.

But this approach has been criticized by the likes of Republican State Sen. Tom Lee, who has instead requested heavier regulatory burdens for private schools that participate, arguing that regulations will promote accountability in the spending of taxpayer funds. Lee also noted that fair competition between traditional public schools and both charter and private schools more broadly isn’t possible, due to the substantially greater red tape and spending restrictions that public school districts are subject to.

Lee’s certainly right about the unfair difficulties faced by public schools. But his well-intentioned criticisms of choice programs like this are mostly misguided. For one, the program doesn’t rely on taxpayer funds. Floridian courts, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, have clarified that these scholarships are 100 percent privately funded. And even if they were taxpayer-funded, they’d only be replacing what’s already spent on educating the students who participate.

In fact, private and charter schools deliver the same or better educational outcomes for less per-pupil funding, according to studies of similar scholarship programs. This is particularly important since U.S. students consistently underperform compared to their peers in other developed nations—despite far greater government spending per-pupil in the United States.  Non-public schools perform at this level with less funding because of an important market component: they stand to lose all funding earmarked for a student if the student withdraws, forcing them to compete to retain their students.

But school choice programs don’t just help the students that use them. They help everyone—even kids who stay behind in their assigned public schools, which now have to get better in order to keep their students from leaving for better options. Studies of school choice programs in both California and New York state, for example, have found that traditional public schools improved their educational outcomes over time as they became more responsive to the concerns of parents and kids. More students participating would mean more competition and more benefits for all students.

To State Sen. Lee’s point, measures ought to be taken to even the playing field. But the response should be to cut the red tape and increase spending flexibility for public schools—not to make things harder for their competitors with even more regulation. The “categorical spending restrictions” and restricted grants that plague Florida’s schools now force districts to spend a chunk of their funds on specific programs or services. These restrictions don’t apply to private schools, and many of them don’t even apply to charters. That’s good because they’re just top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates from state governments that prevent schools from innovating or making trade-offs between different education priorities that cater to their students. Public schools shouldn’t have to deal with them either, and Lee has admitted as much.

Nevertheless, rather than simply making things easier on everyone, Lee just wants to pile regulations onto non-public schools. The regulatory burdens that Lee promotes could instead undermine the scholarship program and reduce competition by discouraging schools from participating. His proposed amendment to the bill would require private schools to record and disclose details like how many students they’ve enrolled, how many are scholarship program participants or are also in dual enrollment or virtual schools, as well as how many students transferred from the school and why. Some of these raise privacy concerns, especially when applied to students who aren’t program participants.

The greatest accountability measure for any school is that parents and kids can “vote with their feet” by taking all their scholarship dollars to another school if they’re dissatisfied. And that’s something that often isn’t the case for parents dissatisfied with public schools. Although transparency and reporting should be required, there’s no sense in forcing private schools to comply with burdens that even their public counterparts don’t have to comply with—especially when private schools receive significantly less money for every pupil they educate, and charters can’t access funding from local tax revenues.

Expanding school choice to more Floridian families, then, is a welcome step.

A version of this column first appeared in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. 

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