Lessons from school choice in Florida

lessons learnedFor the last month, the North Carolina legislature has been debating whether to create a scholarship program to help low-income families pay the tuition and fees at qualified K-12 private schools. Since this proposal closely parallels Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, I’ve traveled to Raleigh three times in recent weeks to discuss what we’ve learned in Florida about school choice over the last 10 years and how these lessons might apply to the North Carolina program.

Below are the lessons learned I’ve shared with supporters and opponents:

  • All parents want to match their children with the schools that best meet their needs. This is not a political or ideological decision for parents. They just want to do what’s best for their children.
  • Low-income parents have fewer schooling options than more affluent parents. Scholarships provide low-income families with more options. Scholarships don’t level the playing field, but they move us toward greater equality of opportunity for disadvantaged children.
  • Low-income parents don’t have a bias for or against neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools or private schools. Their schooling decisions are pragmatic. They just want access to schools that work for their children.
  • Every child and every school is different. Schools that work great for some children fail others. The challenge for parents is matching each child with the school that works best for him or her.
  •  Children and schools are constantly changing. A school that works for a child one year may not work for this child the next year. When the relationship between a child and a school is no longer successful, low-income parents with scholarships find another school. Low-income parents without scholarships don’t have this option.
  • Scholarships should be awarded to parents and not schools, so parents can change schools when they need to.
  • While district schools are primarily held accountable through government regulations, private schools accepting publicly-funded scholarships are held accountable by parental choice and government regulations. Finding the proper accountability balance between parental choice and government regulations in private schools is an ongoing challenge for elected officials. (District schools today would benefit from less regulatory accountability and more accountability via parental choice.)
  • The Florida Department of Education contracts with a highly respected education researcher, Dr. David Figlio, to study Florida’s scholarship program for low-income students and issue a yearly report on its effects. Dr. Figlio has consistently found the Florida program helps scholarship students and district students. In his most recent report (August, 2012), he concludes: “There exists compelling causal evidence indicating that the FTC Scholarship Program has led to modest and statistically significant improvements in public school performance across the state. Therefore, a cautious read of the weight of the available evidence suggests that the FTC Scholarship Program has boosted student performance in public schools statewide, that the program draws disproportionately low-income, poorly-performing students from the public schools into the private schools, and that the students who moved perform as well or better once they move to the private schools.”
  • The assertion that low-income families violate the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution when they use public funds to pay for tuition and fees at faith-based schools is false. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) that when parents choose to attend a faith-based school, it is constitutional since it involves no government coercion. Their choice is an exercise in freedom of religion.
  • Florida private schools must adhere to federal anti-discrimination laws, which forbid discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. We have no reports of Florida private schools not admitting students for reasons other than students not meeting a school’s publicly-advertised admission requirements. Magnet and charter schools also regularly don’t admit students who fail to meet their admission requirements, and neighborhood district schools regularly send students with disabilities or behavioral problems to alternative schools that are better able to meet their needs.
  • Five different independent agencies over the past decade have concluded Florida’s scholarship program saves tax money that can be used to enhance district schools. The most recent report from the Florida Official Revenue Estimating Conference, in March 2012, pegged the tax savings in 2012-13 at $57.9 million. A financial analysis of the proposed N.C. program, using the approach of Florida’s Official Revenue Estimating Conference, projects it will save $15.9 over the first five years in state funds alone, and $80.6 million over five years in state and local funds.
  • Assertions that the N.C. legislature will be redirecting funds from district schools to private schools are incorrect. If this bill becomes law, the legislature will be giving low-income families the opportunity to use scholarship funds. If no low-income parents choose to use these funds, not a single penny will be allocated to a private school. The parents are in control.
  • Finally, some state representatives have asserted that private choices are antithetical to democracy and the common good. The opposite is true. Democracy is founded on the idea that private choices, when properly regulated, create the common good. The aggregation of private choices is how we generate collective knowledge. A vote is a private choice and a democratic election is the aggregation of these private choices. Vouchers and scholarships for low-income families give these parents access to some of the same private choices more affluent parents have. This enhanced access strengthens public education by allowing the system to learn from these private choices. If increasingly more low-income families are choosing Montessori schools and the waiting lists for these schools are growing longer, public educators know we need to make more Montessori schools available to low-income families.

I have been pleased with how many Democratic and Republican legislators have been willing to sit down and discuss this proposal in a respectful and civil manner. Their civility and thoughtfulness bodes well for our democracy and North Carolina’s children.

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