K-12 choice expands opportunity for Florida families and teachers

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Matthew Ladner

The K-12 public education system is rigged in favor of the wealthy as much as the higher education system, but in Florida, things have changed for the better.

Wealthy families once enjoyed exclusive access to fancy neighborhoods zoned for high performing schools. Other families found themselves excluded from these schools. Wealthy families could also afford to pay private school tuition in addition to their school taxes. “Checkbook choice” used to be the privilege of the well to do, but today, choice programs have expanded opportunity.

Choice programs have changed things by expanding opportunities. Today, they give low and middle-income Florida families the opportunity to select the best school for the individual needs of their child regardless of where they live. An increasing number of Florida teachers have been founding new schools and using choice programs to intentionally include families from modest incomes as well as students with disabilities.

Florida needs more schools and more teachers. State projections foresee hundreds of thousands of new students on the way for Florida’s already often over-crowded public school system. The Florida Constitution guarantees funding for public education, and taxpayers have not only increased per-pupil funding, they also have footed the bill for expensive construction projects that are needed but which draw district resources out of the classroom.

Florida school districts have dramatically improved performance since the 1990s on national tests and always will be the indispensable base of Florida’s K-12 education system. District schools, however, will need all the help they can get in the years ahead.

Choice programs help taxpayers by expanding opportunities for families and teachers while relieving overcrowding and allowing districts to focus more funding on the classroom. A recent study by Florida Tax Watch found that Florida’s scholarship program for low and middle-income families produces better academic results with a 40 percent overall lower cost to taxpayers. Given the thousands of families on waitlists for the programs and the acute funding needs in other areas, expanding this program would be broadly beneficial to the public.

Florida families have exercised the opportunity to choose between a growing variety of public and private school options since 1999. The district system grew stronger, but no single system can be all things to all children everywhere. Each student is unique and deserves the opportunity to find a school which is the best fit for his or her aspirations and needs.

Research conducted by a state authorized academic evaluator has found academic benefits for both public and private school students from choice. Even families who choose their zoned district school benefit from having the option to find another school if they ever feel they need it.

Teachers benefit from these programs as well. Frustrated with bureaucratic systems, a growing number of teachers who once left the profession today have decided to become their own boss by founding a private school. This gives these teachers the opportunity to pursue their own vision of a high-quality education free from much of the red tape surrounding the current system. Many of these pioneering educators have utilized Florida choice programs so that they can create purposely diverse schools that include low-income students and students with disabilities. With hundreds of thousands of new students on the way and a shortage of both space and teachers willing to work in a district setting, this trend is a huge win for teachers, families and taxpayers.

Teachers and families need and deserve opportunities that will help them fulfill their promise.

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