The program’s popularity speaks to an untold story: how Florida parents are demanding more learning options for their children, and how the state, school districts and other providers are obliging them.
It is a sea change, and it brings complications worthy of scrutiny. But too often what we get, instead, are op-eds with so many distortions, it’s impossible to respond in 600 words. Here are basic points I hope readers will consider when criticisms surface.
The need for options. Florida public schools are making strides, especially with low-income students, but they need help. In 2013, low-income fourth-graders in Florida were number one among all states in reading, after being among the lowest-performers in the 1990s. Public schools deserve far more credit than they get for gains like this. But being number one still means only 27 percent are proficient.
The cherry picking myth. Scholarship students are required by law to take standardized tests (though few take the FCAT), with the results analyzed by Northwestern University researcher David Figlio. Contrary to statements in a recent op-ed, Figlio found those students “tend to be among the lowest-performing students in their prior school,” a trend that is “becoming stronger over time.” In other words, if private schools are out to cherry pick, they’re doing a lousy job.
Results. Figlio’s conclusion was also mangled in the op-ed. Here are his words, straight from his report: “… 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 draining myth. The scholarships don’t hurt public school funding. Many think they do, and in a state that ranks low in per-pupil spending, that’s a killer. But the truth is, taxpayers pay about half as much per scholarship as they do per student in public school. The scholarship is $4,880 this year; it’ll be $5,272 next year. Seven different analyses conclude the program does not drain public school funding. Not a single one concludes it does.
Accountability. Accountability is different when parental choice is in the mix, but that doesn’t mean it’s less effective. Private schools are accountable to the people who know and love their children the most. If scholarship parents aren’t satisfied, they move on — something too many public school parents, especially low-income parents, cannot do. That’s why they’re applying for scholarships in record numbers.
The big picture. More than 40 percent of all pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students in Florida now attend something other than their zoned schools. In this ever-expanding menu that includes charter schools, magnet schools and virtual schools, private schools are not better. But they can be different. And for an individual child, different can be better.
Bottom line: More options give more parents more opportunities to find what works for more kids. That’s good for all of us.