CLEWISTON, Fla. – It’s hard to think of anywhere in Florida more off the beaten path than the string of blue-collar towns on the rim of Lake Okeechobee. They’re snugged between the grassy, 30-foot-high dike that corrals America’s second-biggest lake, and a 450,000-acre sea of sugar cane that rolls south towards the Everglades. This is not palmy, beachy Florida. This is burning fields and smoking-sugar-mills Florida.
This is also school choice Florida.
The half-dozen towns that ring Lake Okeechobee are home to 10 private schools that serve more than 600 students using school choice scholarships. Four charter schools in the area serve another 600.
Harvest Academy Christian School in Clewiston, a town too small for a Starbucks, is one of these schools. It opened nine years ago with 12 students. Now it has 120. About 90 use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students.* Five use McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities.
“I think it’s the best thing that could have happened,” said Sanjuanita Morales, 29, a stay-at-home mom whose three children attend Harvest Academy with tax credit scholarships. “There’s a lot of people that ask about the school and the scholarships and they say, ‘Oh that’s really cool you have options.’ “
The choice schools here are myth chippers. There’s the myth that school choice can’t work in rural areas because there are too many hurdles – including too few students – to make non-district schools viable. Then there’s the myth that rural school districts, often their area’s biggest employers, are especially hostile to choice because they need to keep themselves viable.
Both myths solidified during last year’s confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos. Both continue to endure in stories like this, this and this. Yet both seem at odds with what’s happening in Florida, which has one of America’s most diverse educational ecosystems.
School choice war? Not here.
Thirty Florida counties are defined as rural, and this year they’re home to more than 80 scholarship-accepting private schools (like this one). Together, those schools are serving 3,828 tax credit students, 999 McKay students and 287 students using Gardiner Scholarships, an education savings account for students with special needs.* Many also serve students using Florida’s pre-K voucher.
Three of those counties abut Lake Okeechobee.
Hendry County, home to Clewiston, has 39,000 residents scattered over 1,190 square miles. If Hendry were a state, its population density would rank near Nevada’s. Okeechobee County on the north end of the lake is a tad less remote (on par with Colorado); Glades County on the west, two tads more (think New Mexico). The east end of the lake rests in Palm Beach County, but Pahokee and Belle Glade are 40 miles, and a galaxy, from the glitz of West Palm Beach.
As for the other myth: Listen to Jesse Windham, principal of Harvest Academy.
“Everyone thinks it’s a war,” he said about school choice. “It’s not here.”