Florida sets shining example on school choice

House Speaker Paul Renner, who made education choice his top legislative priority this session, recapped at Monday’s bill-signing ceremony how Florida went from nearly worst to first over the past quarter century, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush began advocating for policies that allowed students to leave failing district schools.

Editor’s note: This commentary from Jason Bedrick, research fellow at the Center for Education Policy, and Lindsey Burke, director at the Center for Education Policy, appeared Tuesday on The Heritage Foundation’s website.

Florida has long been a pioneer in ensuring that families can choose the learning environments that align with their values and work best for their children. Now its lawmakers have cemented the state’s status as a national leader in education freedom and choice.

Last week, the Florida Senate passed House Bill 1, which expands the state’s groundbreaking education savings account (ESA) policy to all K-12 students “regardless of race, income, background, or zip code,” said House Speaker Paul Renner. Until now, only students with special needs were eligible.

With an ESA, families can customize their child’s education. They can use ESA funds to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curriculum, online learning, special-needs therapy, and more. Florida was the second state, after Arizona, to enact an ESA policy.

Florida will now be the sixth state nationwide to make an ESA or ESA-style policy available to all K-12 students.

Due in no small part to its robust education choice policies, Florida ranked first in the nation in The Heritage Foundation’s inaugural Education Freedom Report Card last year. “Florida’s schoolchildren are thriving because we invest in our students, and we empower parents to decide what learning environment is best for their kids,” explained Gov. Ron DeSantis at an event launching the report card.

However, as DeSantis conceded during his remarks, Florida did not take the top spot in every category. The Sunshine State ranked third for education choice behind Arizona and Indiana due to their more expansive education choice policies. “We’re going to be working hard to make sure we do even better going forward,” DeSantis declared.

With the imminent signing of the universal education savings account program into law, DeSantis has done just that.

Florida faces some tough competition, though. In the last two years, Arizona and West Virginia have also made ESAs available to all students. This year, Iowa, Utah and Arkansas all enacted new ESA or ESA-style policies that are either open to all K-12 students or will phase-in to universal eligibility over the next three years. Several other state legislatures, most notably in Texas, are also considering bills to create robust education choice policies.

What explains the meteoric success of states in finally adopting universal education choice options? Two shifts: connecting choice to the issues about which families care most and making sure every family can benefit from the policy.

Parents care about academic outcomes. But more than that, they care about the values schools are inculcating in their children. When a survey asked Florida families using tax-credit scholarships to list the top three factors that influenced their choice of school, the only factors selected by a majority were “religious environment/instruction” (66%) and “morals/character/values instruction” (52%).

Parents want schools to teach their children to be good students, good citizens and good workers, but most of all they want their children to become good people.

This is apparent from the issues that have been driving parents to turn out in droves at school board meetings. They’re not there because of low test scores or a lack of rigorous instruction. Parents are raising concerns about classroom lessons that teach children to divide people along racial lines, pornographic books in public school libraries, and school policies that keep parents in the dark when their children are struggling with their “gender identity.”

DeSantis and the Florida Legislature have tackled these issues head on while recognizing that school choice policies are a vital part of the solution. School choice gives parents an immediate escape hatch if their child’s school is pushing an ideology that runs counter to their values. But equally importantly, school choice policies empower families who want to push back against radical policies in their schools.

This is one reason why education choice options should be open to all children. With school choice, families are no longer a captive audience of their assigned school. School officials and school boards are less likely to be dismissive of parents who are raising concerns when they know that unhappy parents can take their children elsewhere—and the money will follow them.

Making school choice policies universal is also more popular among voters. In a 2022 survey, barely half of the respondents favored making school choice available based on financial need, but 75% favored making it available to all families. State policymakers nationwide are achieving greater success advancing universal choice proposals than ones that are limited to particular populations.

For setting the standard for empowering all families to choose the right learning environments for their children, Florida lawmakers deserve an A+. Lawmakers in other states would do well to follow the Sunshine State’s shining example.

Avatar photo

BY Special to NextSteps