Can Texas keep up with Florida?

One of my darkest days as a sports fan came in January of 1991.

Mrs. Ladner and I were on our honeymoon in Paris, and I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune. On the front cover was a photo of University of Miami defensive tackle Russell Maryland sacking Texas quarterback Peter Gardere in the Cotton Bowl.

Beneath the photo was a game summary including a score. I blinked and put the paper closer to my eyes in disbelief: University of Miami 46, Texas 3. My No. 3 ranked Longhorns had been blown out in humiliating fashion.

The Longhorns faced Miami in the 2023 NCAA men’s basketball tournament and that didn’t work out for me either. What Florida has been doing to Texas in K-12 reform results, however, is worse than either of those bitter defeats.

Florida and Texas share a number of things in common; large, diverse populations, Republican state leadership, and strong economic and population growth. Both Florida and Texas have been welcoming migrants, especially from California and New York, where their numbers are declining.

The National Center for Education Statistics projects the school age population of Florida and Texas to shrink by -3.9% and -3.3.%, respectively, between 2022 and 2030. The double impact of a national baby-bust and restrictionist foreign immigration policy will challenge even Florida and Texas.

A clear advantage Florida holds over Texas lies in the modernization of public services. This began in education in both states in the 1990s. Florida, however, has gone much farther in expanding choice by embracing charter schools, statewide virtual schooling, school vouchers, scholarship tax credits and, most recently, education savings accounts.

Texas reform efforts by comparison have been timid, and it shows in crucial outcomes such as NAEP fourth grade reading:

Florida’s embrace of universal private choice in 2023 will simply widen this advantage further, absent action by the Texas Legislature.

Florida has all the ingredients necessary for a pluralistic and dynamic system of education in which teachers have the freedom to create their own schools and families have the ability to shape the K-12 space. The schools families are demanding will open and expand, while schools not valued by families will have fewer students to miseducate. Whether you are a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian, or a vegetarian, this is as it should be.

Together, teachers and families will serve as the two hands of a potter at a wheel, shaping the future of Florida education. Texas lawmakers are two-and-a-half decades behind Florida in this endeavor. Texas families are still largely herded to public schools by their ZIP code.

You can see how this is working out for Texas students in the chart above. Meanwhile, Florida has embraced a dynamic future. Will Texas move beyond an antiquated past?

We’ll soon have our answer until 2025 from Texas.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.

One Comment

Texas should follow Florida’s lead, along with that of Governor Abbott, in establishing statewide school vouchers. On the other hand, both states, and particularly Florida, if they want to have a future that isn’t buried under coastal water, need to get realistic about climate change — perhaps Florida can transport some of its coming inundation to Arizona, which is similarly in denial about its unsustainable growth policies, although the latter is parching itself by growing crops for the Saudis, a present-day cabal that future historians will rue when faced with the question, “Who killed the Earth?”

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