Gerard Robinson: Florida is growing school choice, public and private

by Gerard Robinson

Florida has long been a national leader in the field of educational choice. From the introduction of charter schools and the Florida Virtual School in 1996 and 1997, to the creation of the McKay Scholarship program for students with disabilities and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for low-income families in 1999 and 2001, Florida continues to offer its families more choices than ever.

While critics have argued that such programs are harmful to our traditional public school system, our experience in Florida shows the opposite is true. The effect of providing other educational options to our students has benefited not only the students who have participated in these choice programs, but the vast majority of students who have chosen to remain in our traditional public schools as well.

The positive effect of increased educational options is evident in the continuous upward surge in student performance in our public schools over the past 15 years. Although still only a small percentage of the population of our traditional public schools, the choice programs have created a healthy competitive environment that has contributed to the improvement of our traditional public schools’ existing educational programs. They have also helped motivate the introduction of new programs to meet the educational needs of public school students.

From magnet schools to career academies, controlled-open enrollment and Advanced Placement, Florida school districts have introduced numerous new programs and schools that provide unique learning opportunities tailored to the interests and aptitude of their students. In fact, the latest data provided by school districts indicates that of the 2,682,214 students who attend K-12 public schools, nearly 30 percent attend schools other than the one to which they were assigned.

But more than providing competition among the providers of education in our state, school choice is about giving parents, rather than geographic boundaries, control over their child’s educational opportunities. School choice is not so much about one type of school being “better” than another as it is about empowering parents and helping them learn how to become active participants and decision-makers in finding the best educational environment for their child. While thousands of parents will continue to make the choice to keep their children in the public school to which they’ve been assigned, the very fact that they have a choice contributes to the type of parental engagement that is so important to the education of our children.

As the number of educational options available to Florida’s children continues to grow in both the public and private sector, there are two important goals that need to be at the forefront of how our state effectively manages this growth.

First, we need to provide the support and accountability necessary to ensure that growth in numbers is accompanied by growth in the quality of the options available to our students. And second, we need to continue to ramp up our efforts to provide parents with the information they need to take advantage of these options and secure the one that best meets the individual needs of their child.

Our success in reaching these two goals will go a long way in continuing the academic gains that Florida’s children have made and must continue to make if we wish to compete in the future global marketplace.

Here is a brief rundown of some of the choice options available to Florida students.

Charter Schools: There are more than 500 charter schools in Florida, with more than 179,900 students enrolled in 2011-2012. Charter schools are public schools. They are created through an agreement or “charter” between the school and the local school board or a state university. They are given the freedom to be innovative, often providing more effective programs to diverse groups of students, while still meeting the same if not higher standards of accountability as traditional schools. Florida was ranked third in the nation in charter school enrollment in 2010-11.

Virtual Education: Florida has the largest state virtual school in the nation. In 2010-11, approximately 122,000 students successfully completed almost 260,000 half-credit or semester courses. The most recent estimate for 2011-12 is that approximately 300,000 half-credit or semester courses will be completed by Florida students. Florida Virtual School added a new full-time option at the state-level in 2011-12. In its first year of operation, this new school enrolled more than 2,500 full-time students. Florida school districts also offer online schools, programs and/or courses for their students providing high quality online instruction and curriculum that meet state and national standards. District virtual options include district franchises of FLVS, School District Virtual Instructional Programs (VIP), District Virtual Course Offerings (individual online courses) and virtual charter schools. In 2011-12, more than 5,000 full-time students and 7,000 part-time students participated in district virtual programs and schools. Virtual charter schools will begin operation with the 2012-13 school year.

Opportunity Scholarship Program: Although the private component of the Opportunity Scholarship Program was declared unconstitutional in 2006, the public option continues to allow students in consistently failing public schools to attend higher-performing public schools. The public school option is administered at the school district level. Currently, 161 public schools participate in the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Student enrollment in 2010-11 was 4,376 within 33 Florida school districts.

John M. McKay Scholarship Program: The McKay Scholarship Program allows students with disabilities to attend private schools if the public schools they are attending do not meet their needs. An eligible student with disabilities has several options, including attendance at another public school within the district; attendance at an eligible public school in an adjacent district that has space and provides the services identified in the student’s individual education plan or 504 accommodation plan; or attendance at an eligible private school (both sectarian or nonsectarian). As of February 2012, more than 23,600 students were enrolled in the McKay options. Currently 1,076 private schools are eligible to enroll McKay qualified students.

Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program: The Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship Program is funded through contributions made by businesses that receive state tax credits equal to the amount of their contributions. The program provides scholarships that enable low-income students to attend private schools. To be eligible, a new student must qualify for free- or reduced-price school lunch under the National School Lunch Act and be counted as a full-time student during the previous state fiscal year for purposes of state per-student funding or be entering kindergarten through fifth grade. (Foster children are also eligible.) More than 1,180 private schools are eligible to participate in the FTC program. There were 38,375 students enrolled in the FTC program as of February 2012.

Magnet Schools: Magnet schools first came into being in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a tool to further academic desegregation. Magnet schools were intended to “attract” students from across different school zones. Therefore, magnet schools open their enrollment geographically across traditional school zones and provide an environment or experience that attracts students and families from other school zones.  Magnet schools are public schools with a particular theme or academic focus, such as mathematics, science, technology, business or performing arts. During 2011-12, Florida had 203 magnet schools with 284 magnet programs. Magnet schools have taken on a more competitive aspect and are attracting more high-performing students each enrollment year.

Controlled open enrollment: Each district school board may offer controlled open enrollment within the traditional public schools in addition to the existing choice programs. Controlled open enrollment emphasizes the right for families to choose among existing public schools. Instead of being assigned to a school by a school district based on attendance zones, parents may choose a school from anywhere within the district or, if not geographically feasible, from within established zones or boundaries within the district. In 2011-12, student participation in controlled-open enrollment was 306,093.

Career Academies: Career academies are small, personalized learning communities within a high school that prepare students for a career path based on their interest, including post-secondary opportunities.Academy themes focus on careers in high-demand, high-skill and high-wage areas. Career academies, through partnerships with local businesses, provide academy students with enhanced opportunities for hands-on experiences, job shadowing and industry certifications in highly competitive career fields. The Florida Legislature passed the Career and Professional Education (CAPE) Act to provide a statewide planning partnership between the business and education communities to meet local and regional workforce demands. In 2010-11, the fourth year of implementation of the CAPE Act, school districts registered 1,298 career and professional academies, representing all 67 of Florida’s school districts, with 20,644 academy students earning 23,088 certifications with a passing rate of 73.6 percent. Among the 154,327 students enrolled in career and professional academies, 24,910 or 16.1 percent, were reported as having earned one or more approved industry certifications going back to the 2007-08 school year.

Dual Enrollment: Florida’s dual enrollment program is an educational option and mechanism for acceleration. Eligible high school students can enroll in post-secondary courses to simultaneously earn credit toward both high school graduation and a college degree or career certificate. Students who meet eligibility requirements are permitted to take dual enrollment courses at Florida public colleges and some state universities during school hours, after school, or during summer term. During 2011-12, 50,978 students participated in dual enrollment. Among them, 42,061 students were enrolled in academic courses and 8,917 students took career and vocational courses.

Home education: Protecting home education in Florida became effective in 1985. A parent-directed educational option, home education satisfies the requirement for regular school attendance. Parents have the freedom to determine their child’s educational path and the plan for reaching their goals. Students have the opportunity to explore and learn at their own pace, in any location or at any time. According to Florida law, parents must submit a written notice of intent to the district school, comply with the reporting, record keeping and student evaluation requirements specified in statutory law. Local support groups as well as statewide groups exist to support home education families. During 2010-11, 69,281 students were reported to have participated in home education.

Gerard Robinson is Florida’s education commissioner.