Surfing the tsunami

The massive Miami-Dade school district could have done what many districts do and fought the expansion of educational choice. For those who view competition as a threat, it had plenty of incentive. In Florida, no urban district has a higher rate of students enrolled in charter schools and private schools. In Florida, everybody knows even more educational choice is on its way.

But Miami-Dade didn’t fight choice, at least not in the conventional sense, as I lay out in “Miami’s Choice Tsunami,” published today in Education Next. Under the leadership of Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, the fifth-biggest district in America decided, instead, to crank up its own creative, choice-driven programming. To use the superintendent’s colorful metaphor, Miami-Dade didn’t try to outrun the choice tsunami.

It surfed it.

“I was not going to do what a lot of my colleagues did, which is, ‘Let’s hope and pray it (the tsunami) doesn’t hit us, “Carvalho said. The expansion of choice “materialized exactly as we predicted. But rather than being a spectator, or a victim of it, we were an active participant in it.”

The result? Over the course of a decade, the percentage of Miami-Dade students enrolled in magnet schools, career academies and other district options climbed from 35 to 61 percent. Counting charter schools, educational choice enrollment in Miami-Dade is at 69 percent. Counting private schools, it’s at 74 percent. “Let 1,000 flowers bloom” isn’t an aspirational goal in the 305. It’s the new normal. And coincidentally or not, academic trend lines have risen as choice has become mainstream.

The Surfin’ Supe isn’t the only character in this story. Fully half of the Miami-Dade charter sector, now enrolling 70,000 students, is affiliated with Academica, a company that remains mostly off radar despite evidence of strong outcomes. After the district, it’s the single biggest educational provider in the 305. You can’t tell the story of Miami-Dade’s transformation without including Academica.

You also can’t ignore the new educational species emerging down there. I included a bit about a former district teacher who felt the system wasn’t serving her or her son with autism. With the help of Gardiner Scholarships, Florida’s education savings account for students with special needs, Ana Garcia created her own home education cluster. (Gardiner Scholarships are administered by non-profits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.) There were 1,469 students using Gardiner Scholarships in Miami-Dade last year, which doesn’t sound like many. But 20 years ago, there weren’t many enrolled in Miami-Dade charters, and zero using private school choice.

We should all keep an eye on the models that sprout when more parents and teachers get more freedom to choose and create. We should also keep an eye on how districts like Miami-Dade respond as even bigger waves roll in. But for now, the choice tsunami in this great American city looks an awful lot like a rising tide.

Lead photo: Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has ridden the wave of increased education choice in Florida, overseeing more than 380 specialized programs. PHOTO: Donna Victor

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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 [email protected] or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at