The breadth of Florida’s choices for parents

The latest Alliance For School Choice yearbook once again does a remarkable job of cataloging the progress of private learning options across the nation, and Florida again sits at the top. But the vouchers and tax credit scholarships are only part of what distinguishes the transformation of public education in the Sunshine State. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth largest school district.

At a meeting of the School Board last week, superintendent Alberto Carvalho laid out a slate of 18 new magnet programs that include such offerings as a conservatory of arts, an iTech focusing on video gaming development and a technology-intensive program at a museum of science. “Parents will shop based on what they believe is the best fit, the best option for their kids,” he told the board.

Miami-Dade, with 70 percent of its 347,000 students on free or reduced-price lunch and 90 percent of them Hispanic or black, takes parental choice to a different level. It opened its first lab school more than a half-century ago and its first magnet schools nearly three decades ago, and reports that four of every 10 students attend a school of their choosing.

The district has 340 magnet programs in more than 100 elementary, middle and high schools with enrollment that exceeded 43,000 students last year. It has 25,000 students who choose schools through open enrollment practices and another 22,000 in career and professional academies. Nearly 10,000 low-income students choose Tax Credit Scholarships and 4,000 disabled students choose McKay Scholarships to private schools. Its charter school enrollment alone, roughly 39,000 students, is large enough to rank among the top 150 school districts in the nation.

Miami-Dade is, to a significant degree, the new definition of public education. Parents there are given legitimate options, whether their children are Ivy League material or struggling to keep on grade level, and the administrative team embrace a culture of choice. As Perla Tabares Hantman, the Havana-born board chairwoman put it: “This is about choice and giving the parents the opportunity to decide what is best for their children.”

That’s one reason Florida continues to be a place to watch.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.