While the Alabama legislature continues to struggle with the idea of school choice, the state of Florida has one of the longest records to evaluate when it comes to legislation enacted and implemented for a parental school choice program.

Florida first introduced the school voucher program to parents under former Governor Jeb Bush in 1999. The state now has over 20 years of statistics, documentation and testimonials regarding how this move has changed the educational landscape in the state.

Alabama lawmakers have been considering the Parental Choice Act (PCA), introduced by Senator Del Marsh and Representative Charlotte Meadows, during the current Alabama legislative session of 2022.

The bill has gone through multiple changes and appears to be stalled in the process.

Alabamians are taxed to fund the public education system. The current system limits choices for those who cannot afford alternative forms of education, leaving them with only the public schools within their designated zip codes. The PCA seeks to allow parents of students to receive access to a portion of their tax dollars to use them for a school option they choose.

According to data from EdChoice.org, 30 states have some form of parental choice, with varying degrees of policy and regulatory changes that have placed the leverage of choice back in the hands of parents.

In Florida, a non-profit organization, Step Up for Students, has been in the middle of the education choice fray from the beginning. Patrick Gibbons is the current public affairs manager for Step Up. He spoke directly to 1819News, giving a historical breakdown of the advancement and expansion of school choice in Florida.

Gibbons started out as a history teacher in high school before he became heavily involved in education policymaking. When he changed his career path, he started to work in the education think tank advocacy world in the states of Arizona, Oklahoma and Nevada.  Even then, he held up Florida to these other states as the epitome of school choice advancement, having been first introduced back in the 1990s.  Since those days, Gibbons moved to Florida to become directly involved in the Step Up program and has been there for the past nine years.

“When it comes to Florida, in the early 1980s the only option for a parent was sending their child to a local district public school or a private school paid for out of their own pocket,” said Gibbons. “In the mid-1980s, we had magnet schools created as an option, in the mid-1990s, under a Democratic governor, we added charter schools as an option, and then-Governor Jeb Bush in 1999 introduced the first voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship program. 

“Since then, school choice programs have really blown up here in Florida. About 48% of all school-age children, K-12, in our state attend a school of choice. There are more students in Florida attending a school of choice than all the public-school students in 12 other states.”

Step Up for Students first began with the tax credit scholarship for businesses and organizations to fund, similar to what Alabama created with the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund. That donated money in whole was allotted to low-income students looking to move out of their district school and enroll in a charter school. The program always had more kids applying than scholarships that were available.

Since then, the state governor and legislators have expanded the scholarship program, created new ones with more specialized targeting for minorities and special needs students, and then moved into the development of education savings accounts for parents to cover tuition at a variety of school choices. Step Up has been there to facilitate the enrollment, eligibility, and accounts for families involved in these scholarship programs.

K-12 education in Florida now has over 20 years of experience with educational choice, and since 2014 the educational savings accounts that provide funds directly to the parents, out of the state treasury. The initial steps in creating this program, which challenged the status quo, started with parents of special needs children. Gibbons credited these parents for being a persistent impetus in getting state lawmakers to take action, and for how their efforts earned respect and support from both political parties.

“Parents with special needs children are a special lot and they are going to fight for their kids’ education and care, and both Democrats and Republicans do not want to mess with these parents,” Gibbons said. “So, they are publicly supportive of this ESA program.

“The Teacher’s Union was not so receptive.”

Gibbons said that since Florida was stepping into an arena that had heretofore been dominated by the public school system, the proponents of school choice were naturally met with skepticism and in some cases opposition. The teacher unions in that state were not going to stand by and have education jobs put at risk. Whenever the status quo and flow of dollars are potentially migrated to a different set of decision-makers, resistance is going to happen. So, the Florida teacher unions legally challenged the Gardner Scholarship program when it was first created for special needs students. These unions argued the program was enacted in an unconstitutional manner and set a bad precedent for creating future programs within education.

“If you know anything about teachers' unions, they are not an institute for justice, they are not a constitutional litigation firm, so that was just cover,” said Gibbons. “They were attacking the program and trying to get it stopped. They just don’t like anything leaving the district. Their business model is formed around getting as many teachers as possible and incorporating them into the union, getting union dues and then providing benefits for these teachers, negotiating salaries, etc.

“For the unions, it’s cheaper for them to negotiate with 67 Florida counties, rather than 67 counties and 687 charter schools, 1,925 private schools, and then 30,000 parents of special needs kids. It’s a lot cheaper to negotiate with a handful of people than thousands. Their business model is totally anti-choice because of that. It doesn’t have to be. They could evolve with the times eventually but they haven’t figured that out, so it’s easier to oppose school choice programs and keep the current business model going.”

Now, in 2022, Gibbons can refer to statistics showing that the move into parental education choice has been very popular and empowering for families. Clearly, the move did upset the education apple cart, but it did so with positive results, Gibbons said.

“About 48% of all school-age children, K-12,  in our state attend a school of choice,” said Gibbons. “That translates to 1.5 million students in Florida are in a school of their choosing. If you are just looking at choice, charter schools are by far the most popular. Three-hundred-forty-one thousand students are in charter schools, 135,000 are in home education, over 180,000 kids are in schools based on income scholarships designed for families with income at $100,000 or below.”

Step Up for Students served a total of 183,023 students with 5 different scholarship offerins applied in 1,934 private schools throughout the state during the 2021-22 school year. According to the organization’s website, the schools that have chosen to join the cause of helping underprivileged students range from the six-student Walden Middle School in Gulfport to the 1,512-student Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy High School in Fort Lauderdale. The average school has 56 scholarship students.

Other statistics:

The average household income is $37,730. The standard for free or reduced lunch in public schools is 185 percent of the poverty level.

Some 29 percent of students are black and 39 percent Hispanic. Roughly 26 percent are white and another 4 percent identify as multi-racial.

Fifty-four percent of the scholarship children are from single-parent households.

A state-commissioned researcher has determined that scholarship students “tend to be among the lowest-performing students in their prior school, regardless of the performance level of their public school.”

According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Arkansas’s School Choice Demonstration Project,  there is a positive correlation between the education options states offer and test results on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) for 8th-grade reading and math.

The researchers found that “Higher levels of education freedom are significantly associated with higher NAEP achievement levels and higher NAEP achievement gains” between 2003 and 2019 in all of their models.

View full chart here.

Gibbons was quick to say that school choice giving parents more options in education is not the “end all-be all” for creating perfection in education. It is however creating a certain level of satisfaction for parents, even those who continue to place their child in the public school system where they live. 

“When we do our annual surveys on parents, they are overwhelmingly happy that they have the choice,” Gibbons said. “It’s in the 90th-percentile, in just being given the choice and having options for their kids, whether they actually make a change or not in schools. We are not telling people that school choice is the only answer, or that private schools are the only answer. We are just saying, ‘Hey, it’s one of many potential answers for your child.”

Gibbons said that students who did not leave their district school upon the creation of education savings accounts were still the recipients of positive change, in that teachers and school administrators immediately went into a self-evaluation mode, changing how they dealt with the students they currently had, in an effort to not to lose any more students through ESA transfers.

Gibbons also said that this current positive landscape in education did not happen overnight in Florida, and is by no means fully realized even now.

“Anyone who is going to tell you that XYZ program is going to resolve all education issues overnight is lying to you,” Gibbons said. “It’s all going to be small, incremental improvements, year after year after year. When you think about it, overcoming the long term problems of poverty or being born with a special need, no one is going to overcome those disadvantages instantaneously, it’s going to take years of work, improving on what you did the year before to get to the point where Florida is and where Florida wants to go. We still have a lot to do here. We are not perfect yet, but we are making small changes. There is no overnight success”

Alabama lawmakers continue to contemplate taking the first step in changing the way things are done in state education, as evidenced by the stall out of the Parental Choice Act. The reading rankings in Florida could provide further insight into the need for something to be done. You can view comparisons on reading here and on mathematics here.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email andrea.tice@1819News.com.