The private school voucher Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law 15 years ago as part of his sweeping education reform was so quickly challenged and invalidated by the courts that its enduring significance is sometimes missed. Indeed, the Florida Opportunity Scholarship did not survive. But its children have grown like weeds.
The numbers are eye-popping: When the Florida Supreme Court tossed out the state’s first private voucher in 2006, it was serving 733 students. This past school year, three other scholarship programs adopted while Bush was governor reached more than 222,000 students. Throw in charter schools and that number exceeds 451,000.
In other words, one of every seven PreK-12 public education students last year attended a privately operated school.
As the governor’s Foundation for Excellence in Education takes a look back at the effect of the A+ Plan this month, it is rightfully focusing on the impact on traditional public schools. The plan’s laser focus, after all, is on academic standards and the learning gains of every student. It is driven by school grades based on student performance, and the resulting academic data created a momentum of its own.
As an editorialist for what is now called the Tampa Bay Times, I was among the progressives who chafed at the sweeping nature of the change and the abrupt partisan politics that made it possible. And yet the data was a punch in the gut. The Times had for decades been a faithful defender of a desegregation plan that put black and white children together on the same campuses, even as the burden fell disproportionately on black families. And yet A+ provided a disturbing reality check. It revealed that the gap in academic performance between black and white children in Pinellas remained shockingly wide. The A+ plan, among its other legacies, has forced all of Florida education to take that gap seriously.
In the 1999 Legislature, though, the biggest political scrap was over the voucher. Opportunity scholarships were tied to the new school grades under the law, and were available to any student who attended a district school that had two failing grades in four years. A lawsuit challenging the voucher was filed on June 22, 1999, the day after Gov. Bush signed the education reform into law.
As it turns out, that was only the beginning of Florida’s extraordinary transformation in parental empowerment. Continue Reading →