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School choice: Florida's rising tide

School choice: Florida's rising tide
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The next time school choice opponents claim the apocalypse is coming to public schools in your state — and there’s a whole new round of that in the wake of pandemic pods — point them to Florida. Choice in the Sunshine State isn’t some fearmonger’s abstraction, and the storyline here is a rising tide, not a falling sky.

Over the past quarter-century, Florida has expanded education choice as much as any state in America, driven by commitments to equity and diversity as much as liberty and competition. The state is now home to the nation’s largest private school choice program, its biggest education savings account program, one of its biggest charter school sectors, and a pioneering virtual school that, in the midst of the pandemic, is more cutting-edge than ever. 

Yet, rather than succumb to the phantom menace of “privatization,” Florida’s education system has morphed from punchline to pacesetter, and students disadvantaged by poverty and disability have experienced some of the biggest gains.

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The most recent evidence comes via Education Week. Its latest rankings, out this month, put Florida at No. 3 in K-12 achievement, behind Massachusetts and New Jersey. The publication’s formula is based on a thoughtful mix of common indicators, including graduation rates, Advanced Placement exams, and math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

This is not a fluke, even if all the “Flori-duh” jokes make it seem dubious. In K-12 achievement, Florida has ranked in or near Education Week’s Top 10 for a decade. It ranks No. 3 in the percentage of graduating seniors who’ve passed AP exams. It ranks No. 1, 1, 3 and 8 on the four core NAEP tests, once adjusted for demographics. Since the late 1990s, its graduation rate has climbed from 52 to 87 percent.

To all the states receding in Florida’s rearview mirror, the joke’s on you.

Florida’s progress is even more noteworthy given that the state has one of the highest rates of low-income students, and one of the lowest rates of per-pupil funding. New York has fewer low-income students, and it spends two and a half times more per kid. It’s No. 1 in spending; Florida is No. 44. Yet New York registers at No. 20 in Ed Week, and can manage but No. 23, 39, 19 and 24 on the adjusted NAEP. (Give it a hat tip on AP, though; its students there are No. 8.)

But wait — isn’t education quality a function of money and poverty? Teasing out the factors fueling Florida’s rise is tough. But there’s no doubt the trend lines climbed as 1,000 flowers bloomed.

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Forty-eight percent of Florida students in PreK-12 — 1.7 million — now attend something other than their zoned schools, up from 10 percent a generation ago. And Florida’s school districts have been key in reshaping this landscape. They responded to charters and “vouchers” by ramping up their own magnet schools, career academies and other choice options.

No Florida district represents this shift better than Miami-Dade. It has the highest rate of private school and charter school students of any big district in Florida. But instead of complaining about competition, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho channeled the district’s talents and resources into a choice menu that is among the most creative in America.

Carvalho told me last year that Miami-Dade isn’t running from the “tsunami of choice.” It’s surfing it. Seventy-five percent of students in Miami-Dade now attend a school of choice. And coincidentally or not, Miami-Dade is now among the top-performing urban districts in America.

The pandemic, as crushing as it has been, has made even more people see the need for educational options. In its wake, thoughtful policymakers are proposing to give more parents and teachers the power they need to create more responsive programming. 

This is a good thing. The Florida experience shows public education is strengthened when options expand. The naysayers always declare dark days ahead, but in Florida, awash in school choice, public schools are shining like never before.

Ron Matus is director of policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students, a Florida nonprofit that helps administer five state choice programs, and a former state education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1.