Florida education chief touts benefits of riding the education choice wave

When it comes to education, a rising tide lifts all boats, Florida’s education commissioner told a national audience of school choice supporters and education entrepreneurs. 

Look at Miami-Dade County, where leaders saw the tsunami coming and grabbed their surfboards.  

“The district figured out that movement in South Florida was coming so fast and becoming so popular that the only way they could survive was to improve their services, (and) to improve their offerings,” Manny Diaz Jr. told those attending a conference sponsored by Harvard University called “Emerging School Models: Moving from Alternative to Mainstream.” 

Despite the dire warnings that opponents have repeatedly issued since Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida lawmakers first began stirring up that school choice wave in 1999, none of the predicted devastation has come true, Diaz said. 

Now, 70% of students in Miami-Dade attend a school of choice in the nation’s third-largest public school district. Those include charters, magnets, public schools with open enrollment policies and specialty academies, as well as the nation’s largest education choice scholarship programs. 

Such a win-win situation didn’t stop the teachers unions and other school choice opponents from sounding the same alarms when he sponsored education choice legislation as a state senator.  

“When we passed House Bill 1, they said the sky was going to fall,” Diaz said. “They were completely wrong.” 

Over more than two decades, the legislation has created new options, including multiple scholarships with different funding sources that serve students with a variety of needs. 

HB 1 was the latest advance. Signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2023, it granted scholarship eligibility to all families regardless of income and converted all traditional private school scholarship programs to education savings accounts. The change allows parents the flexibility to spend their student’s allocation on tuition and fees, curriculum, part-time tutoring, and other approved expenses. 

Diaz said the key to Florida’s success is its continuous quest for improvement, which at times has involved the passage of new expansions each year.  

 “It is a relentless chase of continuing to push,” he said. “The best defense is to be continually on offense.” 

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for reimaginED. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.