Is parental choice really the enemy?

Back in December, some of the top elected and appointed officials in Seminole County schools used a public meeting covered by the Orlando Sentinel to blame Florida’s tax credit scholarship for low-income children for their financial woes. They called the program a “travesty” and “part of an agenda” to weaken public schools. The school board chairwoman also claimed “there is no accountability in the program.”

It saddened me to see officials of a quality school system such as Seminole making such factually incorrect and inflammatory remarks, but they weren’t finished. This week, Seminole school superintendent Bill Vogel was asked tough questions by county commissioners who wonder whether his district had built too many schools in the face of declining student enrollment. His response was to again blame parental choice programs, according to the Sentinel, saying his district will need to close down schools because of “a huge shift to charter schools and private school vouchers — programs that Seminole school officials do not favor.”

Please allow me to lay out some facts.

First, let’s report on what the state’s independent researcher has determined about Tax Credit Scholarships:

  • Scholarship students are poorer than their peers on free or reduced-price lunch in public schools.
  • They are among the worst performers at their public schools when they leave on scholarship.
  • Their learning gains are slighter higher than their peers in public schools — a notable achievement for kids who might normally keep trending downward.
  • The more a public school’s students participate in the scholarship, the higher the learning gains for the kids who remain at that public school.

Second, let’s look at the impact of private options on Seminole school enrollment forecasts and planning. In Seminole today, there are:

  • 588 students on the Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students.
  • 480 students on the McKay Scholarship for disabled students.
  • 814 students in charter schools.
  • 63,872 students in public schools.

In other words, only 2.7 percent of the district’s traditional public school students are attending private options. And yet the students are cited as the main source of the financial woes of the district, and the reason public schools need to be shut down. The district has become so averse to parental choice that the School Board voted recently to restrict student transfers even within traditional public schools next year. I have to believe that restricting public school choice will only spur more parents to seek choice outside of the district-run schools.

Perhaps someday the board and the superintendent will accept a new definition of “public education.”  The old definition: all tax dollars are used by district-run schools with students assigned by zip code. The new definition: using taxpayer dollars to educate children using the best methods, and the best providers, for each individual child. Sadly, I think the day they adopt this definition is far away.


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BY John Kirtley

Chairman of Florida scholarship organization for low-income students, Vice Chair of American Federation For Children, a national parental choice organization