Column: School quality rises as school choice expands

Editor’s note: This opinion piece, written by Step Up For Students’ director of policy and public affairs, appeared April 19 on the Florida Politics blog. The commentary was submitted as a rebuttal to an editorial in the Palm Beach Post, which declined to publish it.

Florida’s public education system is leaps and bounds better today than the national embarrassment it was 20 years ago.

But critics triggered by “school choice” continue to suggest, without a scrap of proof, that our schools are basket cases, and choice is to blame.

In its April 7 editorial, the Palm Beach Post perpetuates long-running myths and hides inconvenient facts in condemning a proposed new choice scholarship. Its conspiracy theory is a doozy: “Vouchers” are draining money from public schools, in violation of the Florida Constitution, and while our public schools are being decimated, privateers are cashing in.

The new scholarship would end a waitlist of 13,000 for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which serves 100,000 lower-income students. The value of the new scholarship would be akin to the existing one, yet the Post concludes it “robs Florida’s public schools of needed money.”

No, it doesn’t.

The tax credit scholarship is worth 59 percent of per-pupil spending in district schools. That’s why every independent fiscal impact analysis of the program — eight to date — has concluded it saves taxpayer money that can be reinvested in public schools.

The drain on public schools would come if the program ended.

Construction costs alone would surge into the billions if private school students flooded into public schools. If teachers thought getting a decent raise was tough now, imagine the difficulty with massive new strains on government coffers.

The misinformation and oddities don’t end there.

The editorial suggests private schools are run amok with for-profits when in reality the vast majority are tiny nonprofits. If the paper’s main beef is Florida public schools are being fed crumbs — it calls the state’s low rankings on education funding “pathetic” — how could tiny nonprofits “grab a healthy haul” with 59 percent of “pathetic?”

The editorial also gives credence to the insights of the Florida teachers union, which is rich.

In 2017, the Florida Supreme Court dismissed the union-led lawsuit to kill the tax credit scholarship because the union couldn’t provide a microfiber of evidence to back its claims of harm to public schools.

That hasn’t stopped the union from continuing to flood the public arena with the same erroneous claims.

The Post is right about one thing: accountability is different for public and private schools. Private schools aren’t subjected to the same level of regulation as public schools because they also face the accountability that comes when parents have power to choose.

Parents dissatisfied with private schools can leave, at any time. That’s not true for many parents in public schools, particularly low-income parents.

Unlike parents of means, they can’t just up and move to neighborhoods where they’re guaranteed spots in high-performing schools.

Finding the balance between regulations and choice isn’t easy. But the evidence to date suggests we’re on the right track. Standardized test scores show tax credit scholarship students were typically the lowest-performing students in their prior public schools.

But now, according to a new Urban Institute study, they’re up to 43 percent more likely than their public-school peers to attend four-year colleges, and up to 20 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

That success is not coming at the expense of public schools. Florida’s graduation rate was 52 percent 20 years ago. It’s 86 percent now. Florida is now No. 3 in the nation in percentage of graduating seniors who’ve passed Advanced Placement exams; No. 4 in K-12 Achievement, according to Education Week; No. 1, 1, 3, and 8 on the four core tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, once adjusted for demographics.

These rankings aren’t “moribund.” They’re encouraging.

There’s no good reason why the steady progress of our public schools is routinely ignored. Or why choice programs are selectively scrutinized. Florida has been spending billions of taxpayer dollars on tuition for private and faith-based schools for years — for multiple scholarships in higher education, preschool and K-12. If the proposed new scholarship is “an abuse of the Florida Constitution,” wouldn’t they all be?

Why do critics obsessively single out the choice scholarships that are designed to help low-income families? And shrug at the rest?

Public education in Florida has big challenges, and adequate funding is one of many.

But emotional arguments detached from basic facts don’t advance the hard conversations we need to have.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at


To suggest that private schools face greater accountability due to parental choice is baloney because as you often point out there are numerous choices that public school parents have in the public sector: charters, FLVS, magnets, etc. so, public schools have the double whammy of parental choice AND a Byzantine testing regimen around which the entire system orbits. And that’s without vouchers. Add more vouchers to the mix for the middle class – the goal of people such as yourself, and we are left with public schools having to face the accountability system of testing and choice. The bottom line is every time a voucher entitlement is added for private schools, no testing requirement is deleted from public schools. You always FAIL to mention that.

Let’s make a deal. Let’s have universal vouchers but every kid must be evaluated the same way. Private, public, whatever. Oh, and the private schools taking vouchers must have certified teachers and must take ALL kids. Anything less and we don’t have a uniform system of free public schools and you know it.

Hi Teacher. I agree with you about some things. Florida school districts are creating more and more options, and many good options, in no small part because of the expansion of non-district options. (My kids are enrolled in some of those district options.) It’s also true district schools are facing more and more accountability pressure from parental choice rather than from regulations alone, even if frustrated parents can’t just up and switch district schools the way they can with private schools. I think all of us here have been consistent in saying district schools deserve more regulatory relief and flexibility, including with testing, so they too can have more balance between accountability from choice and accountability from regs. That said, there is obviously a wide range of views about the “right” position on all kinds of things in public education, including testing. I think part of the reason Florida has made the notable academic gains it has over the past 20 years is because of the spotlight that testing has put on the performance of low-income kids and kids of color, and the regulatory accountability that continues to put urgency on their progress. My kids’ experience with testing hasn’t been negative; in the combined 11 years my kids have been tested, I’ve never brought up the FCAT/FSA with them, and they’ve mentioned those tests to me exactly twice. At the same time, I know some families and teachers have deep concerns about testing, sometimes to the point of outrage; I agree with them on some of their critiques, and I don’t think they should have to endure what they hate. That’s another reason I believe we should continue moving towards a system where more teachers have more power to create schools in line with their visions and values and tremendous skills, and more parents have more power to choose those schools, or not. Teachers should be able to create schools that have the approach to testing (and anything else) they think is best, and parents who want that approach should be able to access them. I think a system that continues to expand choice ratchets up accountability on all schools and, at the same time, offers a relief valve and a route to innovation for those who want to offer something different and, maybe, better. Our president here, Doug Tuthill, who is a former longtime district teacher and teacher union president, likes to say the door to the cage is no longer locked, and every day we see more birds realizing they can fly free.

I don’t want my tax dollars going to kids for religious indoctrination. You are advocating for a system where kids going to religious schools will be learning the false science of creationism entirely on the state dime. My tax dollars shouldn’t finance that junk science. Period. End of story. That is a far cry from state support for supplies or other items that may go to a religious school. You are advocating for the entire education in private schools to be put on the tax payer. No! No! A thousand times NO!

Hi teacher. I want my tax dollars going towards a rich, diverse, pluralistic system of public education that puts more and more kids on the path to being successful adults. I have learned through experience that despite all the real and perceived differences we might have about some things, most of us actually have so much in common when it comes to the basic vision of success we have for our kids. I prefer to focus on that vast patch of common ground then get hung up on the small areas where we have differences. I have no doubt there are some schools, both public and private, that are not teaching sound science. I want to see far, far better science outcomes from our public education system, from schools in all sectors. I wish we were all spending more time focused on that instead of not very productive debates about whether more parents should have more power to choose what schools they think are best for the kids. I have faith, shaped by experience, that that day isn’t too far away. In the meantime, I am encouraged by the evidence to date that expanding choice to all kinds of schools is leading to positive outcomes in all kinds of ways. I have to admit I am befuddled about folks who seem to only channel their outrage at some state programs that provide support for private and faith-based schools, but not all of them. The state of Florida has been spending billions of direct taxpayer dollars for many years now on tuition for private and often faith-based schools, through Bright Futures scholarships, VPK, McKay and Gardiner scholarships, etc. Yet there’s been virtually no outrage, no lawsuits, no controversy.

That was a round about, long-winded non-response response. I’m sorry. With all due respect, it just is. Just because there haven’t been lawsuits it doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be. And you know that Bright Futures doesn’t count. The courts ruled long ago that states could AID collegiate religious institutions. BF goes to young adults to pay some of their education but it’s not the same as essentially funding a religious school.

Simple question: should state tax dollars pay the entirety of education for a child learning creationism as science? Yes or no? What if I’m an atheist? Why should I pay a kid’s way to go to a Christian school, Jewish school, or an Islamic madrasa? That’s an obvious violation of the separation of church and state. Not a single state in the Union has such a system!

Why even have a constitution (state or federal) if we aren’t going to abide by it? As a journalist you obviously believe in at least some of the First Amendment, but I’m not sure you believe in all of it. Think about that long and hard.

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