Florida’s mélange of K-12 education options expands opportunities for students, educators

Matthew Ladner

Step Up For Students’ annual Changing Landscapes document reveals 48.2 percent of PreK-12 students attend a school of choice, up from 47.5 percent last year.

“Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.” Leto Atreides, Frank Herbert’s Dune

Studying the Florida Education Landscape document, released last week by Step Up For Students, has become one of my favorite January rituals along with playoff football and enjoying Arizona’s sunny, mild weather.

Serving just under a combined 150,000 students, Florida’s private choice programs would have ranked at approximately the sixth largest in the state by enrollment. The wide world of Florida K-12 choice, however, is much larger than just private choice programs. School districts offer an array of additional programs, Florida’s charter school sector continues to grow, and homeschooling is becoming more popular.

Open enrollment is an option that clearly has room to grow. The 273,377 figure cited in the document looks like – and is – a large number. But as the Reason Foundation’s Vittorio Nastasi notes, only 5,693 of these students transferred between districts, which means the vast majority of open enrollment is occurring within the same district rather than between districts.

This is due in part to Florida’s large system of county school districts. We would not expect to see many students travelling long distances from the center of one country to the periphery of another to attend school.

To put this into perspective, Arizona’s Scottsdale Unified School District takes in 4,000 open enrollment students in a district of approximately 22,000 students. Given that Florida’s public-school enrollment is nearing 3 million, 5,693 between-district transfers might seem like a good start – if it were occurring between Dade and Broward counties rather than statewide.

Bottom line: If too many of Florida’s school districts remain a sleeping giant of choice, other actors will step up to fill the gap. This is the tension in the system that’s needed to spur improvement and innovation and stave off stagnation. Every Florida student deserves the opportunity to attend a school that’s a good fit for his or her aspirations and needs. We have many miles to go before that will be the case.

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