Issue Analysis 87 – Giving Parents a Voice: Florida and School Choice

“Is it moral to tax families, compel their children’s attendance at schools, and then give no choice between teaching methods, religious or secular education and other matters?”

Alveda King (niece of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

The Wall Street Journal, 9/11/1997

Almost everyone agrees that our children deserve a better education, and that our schools need to be reformed to make that happen. Almost everyone also agrees that schools cannot reform themselves. Neither can parents completely do the job by themselves. Parents, teachers and principals need to work together to achieve those reforms. It’s harder to reach agreement on what those reforms ought to look like.

So, why designate only one single education reform measure as the one and only best way to reform schools in Florida? Floridians cherish their individuality and we love having choices. Why should we be any different when it comes to our education system? Why shouldn’t all parents be able to choose which schools our children attend? Parents then would be able to select the education reforms – and the principals and teachers to help implement them – that best suit our children’s needs.

There are a growing number of education alternatives available to parents, including: traditional public schools, private or parochial schools, charter schools, private scholarship programs and even home schools. Simply having these alternatives around helps improve competition in our education system.

With school choice, you are asking schools – public and private – to compete for the opportunity to educate your child. Parents who can afford to move to an area with quality public schools, or enroll their child in private school already are exercising school choice. Parents without such means are forced to send their child to a school assigned by the government – regardless of what the parents think of that school. School choice, completely implemented, would give the power and opportunity to choose a school to all parents – regardless of what they earn or where they live.

Many parents are happy with the public school that their child is attending. Those parents would simply keep their child in his or her present school. However, parents who are not satisfied should be free to send their child to a different school. Given that you pay for your child’s education through your taxes, you should be able to choose your child’s school.

Opponents of school choice argue that giving parents a voice and a choice of schools will destroy public schools. The truth is all schools can only grow stronger as a result of competition. Just as competition has produced better cars, better and cheaper computers, and lower long-distance phone rates for everyone, competition will produce better schools for everyone.

Education Reform in Florida

In a free and democratic society, schools should be accountable to the parents of the students they serve. Schools are most accountable when parents have the right to choose which schools their children attend, and when schools are directly overseen by parents instead of a state bureaucracy. When the state does take parents’ place in overseeing schools, it should focus on measuring and rewarding good performance rather than spending more money on failed systems.

Governor Jeb Bush and Lieutenant Governor Frank Brogan have developed the “A+ Education Plan” to reform Florida’s education system, which takes a number of steps in this direction. This plan gives parents a greater role in the education of their children by increasing accountability and competition in our schools.

Florida’s Education System: A Profile

Total number of students in public elementary and secondary schools (Fall ’98): 2,240,503

Per-pupil spending: $5,365

Per-pupil spending rank: 33 out of 51 (50 states and the District of Columbia)

Pupil/teacher ratio: 16.7/1

Pupil/teacher rank: 30 out of 51

Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) rank:

14 out of 25 (not all states participate)

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math rank: 30 out of 41 (1996, Grade 8) (not all states participate)

Number of charter schools in operation (Fall ’98): 75

Source: Nina Shokraii Rees and Sarah E. Youssef, School Choice: What’s Happening in the States 1999, (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 1999).

Currently, there is very little accountability in our school system. Regardless of how well a school is performing, it will receive funding and students. The A+ Plan provides several measures that introduce accountability by placing the consumers of education – parents and their children – first. These measures range from annually assessing each child’s learning to continually assessing teacher quality, from rewarding schools with great performance or improvement to providing consequences for poor performing schools. In calling for an end to social promotion, the plan will install accountability throughout the system and into the student body. Our children need to learn early on that only hard work and completed assignments will get them ahead in life.

The A+ Plan provides school choice to those who need it most. In a free market, businesses have to offer their customers a high-quality service at an attractive price, or customers will shop elsewhere. The A+ Plan allows parents in schools with failing performance to shop elsewhere by providing scholarship funds that parents can use to send their children to the school of their choice. The plan thus offers hope to thousands of underserved children who are trapped in failing schools.

The A+ Plan gives parents and state officials the critical information they need to evaluate school performance. Students will be tested more frequently, student achievement scores will be converted into school achievement ratings, and these ratings will be widely publicized. Teachers and schools that do their job well will be rewarded in three ways:

More parents will choose to send their children and scholarship dollars to the good schools.

The best schools will receive more state funding and greater discretion to decide how to spend the money.

Five percent of teachers’ pay will depend on their students’ performance.

Schools and teachers should receive more money when they do a good job, not when they fail. For this reason, the A+ Plan’s focus on accountability and parental choice is long overdue.


Call to Action:

Things to do for school choice!

Join CSE Foundation and help educate others about the benefits of school choice.

Write a letter to the editor about the benefits of school choice.

Talk to parents in my community about how we can get school choice in our local school district.


School Choice Glossary

Charter schools are independent schools within the public school system that are not required to adhere to the same regulatory burdens of other public schools. They are free to adopt their own curricula and disciplinary tactics, as well as personnel, in exchange for more rigorous performance standards. These schools compete on a per-child basis with regular public schools for funds.

Child-centered funding is education financing that would allow a single dollar amount, representing the fixed and operational costs to educate one child, to follow each student to the school of his or her choice.

Educational Savings Accounts allow lower income parents to deposit an amount (usually less than $5,000 per-child in after-tax income) each year into interest-bearing savings accounts. The tax-free funds may then be used to pay for any education-related expense, from tuition for private schools to books and tutors.

Full choice allows parents to choose between public, private, and parochial or religious schools.

Home schools are an alternative learning atmosphere created by parents who either educate their children in their home personally, or hire tutors.

Per-pupil spending is the average amount spent per student, based on current expenditures divided by enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools.

Private, sectarian, or parochial schools are different types of schools that are completely independent from the public school system. They can, but do not have to be, religious in nature. Because they are not funded by the government, parents have to pay out-of-pocket to enroll their children in private schools.

Public school choice gives parents school choice only among public schools.

Scholarship programs are available in many forms. Some states have increasingly offered low-income and rural students a way out of their educational distress by paying their tuition at other private or public schools. Many private groups also offer similar scholarships to help low-income parents in urban areas around the nation to get their children into better schools.

Tuition tax credits/deductions allow parents to deduct the cost of tutoring, texts, computers and, in the states that allow credits and/or deductions so far, private school tuition from their annual taxes. With this option, no funds are transmitted from the state to private schools – which reduces the likelihood of government regulation.

Vouchers are state-issued scholarships given directly to students to attend any public or private school of their parents’ choice. In many proposals, vouchers are intended for public schools only, but in some programs, such as Ohio’s Cleveland Scholarship and Tutorial Program, parents are free to choose from adjacent public school districts as well as sectarian institutions.