School choice, power and teacher perks

One of Florida’s leaders in expanding educational options within the public-school system is also innovating in a different way: Creating a two-tiered system for determining who can access those options.

The Miami-Dade County School Board is proposing to create a separate lottery for 5% of the spots in district-operated magnet and choice programs. These would be reserved for children of school district employees, who would also have access to the general choice lottery if their children were not selected in the employees-only lottery.

On one level, the proposal, and the support it garnered from United Teachers of Dade, underscores the magnitude of a cultural shift that has swept Florida’s school districts.

Almost a decade ago, then-superintendent Alberto Carvalho touted the district’s 500 magnet and choice programs, as well as the fact that the majority of its students attended a school of choice.

His quote from the time still resonates: “Rather than complain about the incoming tsunami of choice, we’re going to ride it.”

Now, the nation’s third-largest district boasts that more than three in four of its students participate in some sort of choice program, and that there are more than 1,000 public school options.

The fact that a labor union would seek privileged access to that array of options as an employee benefit, much as it would advocate for more paid leave or higher salaries, underscores just how deeply choice has become ingrained in Florida’s public education system.

But the demand for the proposal also underscores a troubling reality. Even in a district with a multitude of learning options, spots in the most sought-after public schools remain scarce commodities. Competition is so fierce that the unions who represent school district employees are using their leverage at the bargaining table to help secure privileged access for their members.

Of course, we have to acknowledge the bigger picture. Our state’s teachers are underpaid, so it’s no surprise cash-constrained districts are getting creative about devising new perks that don’t carry an obvious price tag. Florida’s seat time requirements, constitutional class size limits and other rules limit districts’ ability to create room for more students in their most sought-after schools and programs.

These are complicated problems, decades in the making.

And they offer a humbling reminder of the work ahead. Until we solve the problem of scarce educational opportunity, groups that wield the most decision-making power in our public education system, at the collective bargaining table or elsewhere, will continue to seek new ways to rig the game.

Avatar photo

BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)