Through the choices they make, students help all schools to innovate and improve

Last week, I wrote that two Florida school choice programs, the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students, help increase student achievement by providing competition. To support my assertion, I cited research by Northwestern University researchers David Figlio and Cassandra M.D. Hart, who reviewed seven years of Florida test data and found competition created by tax credit scholarships had a positive impact on the achievement of low-income students in nearby public schools.

Many educators are hostile to competition because they fear it undermines collaboration, but unlike sports where the competitive goal is to defeat the opponent, the purpose of competition in public education is to increase student achievement by empowering teachers and parents.

Florida’s tax credit scholarship program empowers educators to create more schooling options for low-income families and empowers these families to match their children with the learning options that best meet their needs. No one claims that schools accepting these scholarship students are superior to virtual schools, magnet schools, dual enrollment courses, homeschooling or neighborhood public schools. They are not better, they’re just different. A Montessori school may work well for one student, but it may fail miserably with her sister.

In the tax credit program, competition means families are the primary customer, government protects the public good through regulation, and public and private educators collaborate to help every low-income child succeed. In Hillsborough County, Fla., for instance, the school district and local teachers union partner with the scholarship program to provide online professional development for teachers in district and scholarship schools. District superintendent MaryEllen Elia and union president Jean Clements explain this collaboration this way: “Bottom line is these are our children, and they often return to our public schools. I want them to get the best possible education, wherever they get it.” 

Families help improve all schools through the choices they make, whether their choice is a district school, a charter school, or a private learning option. By voting with their feet, they tell educators what’s working and what’s not. And that’s information all schools can use to innovate and improve.

People are public education’s greatest asset. The empowerment, collaboration and information sharing that come from public education’s version of competition are the best ways to maximize these assets.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.

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