Supporters of the state’s corporate tax scholarship program will gather at the Capitol. They’ve pushed the state teachers union to drop its lawsuit against the program that gives scholarships to low income kids to attend private school. Florida has become one of the nation’s hot spots for school choice programs. While many ideas may have originated in other states, Florida has adopted them and created a massive alternative system.
How many different forms of school choice are there in Florida?
“We have our IB [International Baccalaureate] program, we have our pre-IB program, we have our technology magnet available Godby high school. We have choice programs related to special needs developed through the choice office, we have charter schools," and the list goes on, said Leon County School District Superintendent, Jackie Pons.
He says about seven years ago, the district decided to fully embrace school choice options. They include charter schools, an optional 7th period class, cross-zone school attendance, cross-county attendance if a students in a nearby failing district, private schools, countywide virtual school, and a state virtual option--not to mention home schooling. Pons has even sought to recruit kids back into the traditional school system:
“If you are in a charter school today and you decide you want to come back, you can pick the school you want to go to. It’s called charter school choice," he said.
Every year, choice advocates from across Florida gather at the Capitol, supporting even more choice, in a state where this education option has set templates for other states to follow.
“Florida is clearly a national leader in what I call, customization," said Doug Tuthill, President of Step Up for Students, the state's largest administrator of the Corporate Tax Scholarship Program or what its critics have labeled, defacto school vouchers.
“You see school districts doing a tremendous job of offering magnet programs, more schools within schools, dual-enrollment programs, more charter schools offered, tax credit scholarships, Voluntary Pre-K, VPK [Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten] is the largest voucher program in the state.”
Tuthill calls Florida’s customized learning programs “choice on steroids”. His organization is one of the oldest of its kind. It was created after the Florida Supreme Court ruled giving public money for kids to go to private schools is unconstitutional. So the state instituted a work-around. It gives private companies dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for donating money to funding organizations, like Step Up for Students, which provide the scholarships to low-income families. Tuthill says the program has become a model other states like Georgia.
“Our program really focuses on high poverty kids. And other states aren’t means-tested. But for us, that’s a big deal.”
Florida has not been afraid to experiment when it comes to school choice programs. The state is constantly looking for new ways to innovate when it comes to education—and that’s often come with critics who say Florida lawmakers change education policy way too much.
Now, choice advocates are on to the next phase: personal education funding accounts. The state has a small program for some disabled Floridians, but giving money directly to parents to make choices could transform public education.
“That’s going to go a long way toward breaking the mold of one-size-fits all," Tuthill said. "People should look forward to education savings accounts. They’re going to really allow us to move forward with customization, and equal opportunity.”
Meanwhile, the school choice advocacy group, the Foundation for Florida’s Future, is out with its legislative wish list. The group wants to see more attention placed on struggling readers, an increase in online courses, letting students skip certain courses if they prove they know the material and reducing what the Foundation call “roadblocks” for high performing charter schools.