Florida offers answers to North Carolina’s questions about school choice

Editor’s note: This op-ed was published on the Raleigh News & Observer website last night.

The debate over a private learning option for poor schoolchildren in North Carolina has a familiar ring to it because Florida faced similar fears a dozen years ago. But a targeted and accountable scholarship can strengthen our commitment to equal educational opportunity by giving more tools to the students who face the greatest odds.

Don’t trust me, a lifelong progressive Democrat and former teacher union president who now leads the nation’s largest scholarship program for low-income students. Look instead at the track record in a state with a scholarship that is similar to the plan being offered by a bipartisan coalition of N.C. House members. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship can provide at least a few answers:

The scholarship serves the students who struggle the most. Scholarship opponents say that the most disadvantaged students are the most likely to remain in public schools. But the experience in Florida is just the opposite. As the state’s independent researcher noted in the latest report: “Program participants tend to come from lower-performing public schools prior to entering the program. Likewise, as in prior years, they tend to be among the lowest-performing students in their prior school.”

• These same students are making solid academic progress. According to the results of their nationally norm-referenced tests, these students who were losing ground prior to choosing the scholarship are now achieving the same gains in math and reading each year as students of all income levels nationally. “In other words,” said the latest report, “the typical student participating in the program gained a year’s worth of learning in a year’s worth of time.”

• Traditional public schools are not hurt financially. One N.C. community organizer recently wrote: “At their core, vouchers are about taking public money and giving it to private schools.” But in Florida, five different independent agencies over the past decade have reached the same conclusion: The scholarship saves tax money that can help public schools. That’s because the scholarship is substantially less than the cost of public education, and most of its recipients would have otherwise attended public school. The Florida Revenue Estimating Conference pegged the savings this year at $57.9 million.

• The poorest families are empowered. Several N.C. educators have suggested a $4,200 scholarship would leave too much of a tuition gap for low-income families, and a higher scholarship would certainly improve the program. But Florida has a $4,335 scholarship that serves 51,000 students this year whose average household income is $23,579 – or just 6 percent above poverty for a family of four. The reality is that, for scholarship students, many private schools discount their tuitions or write off the difference together.

As a teacher who once helped create the first International Baccalaureate high school in Florida, I understand how educational choice programs can create angst among those who teach in other schools. But this is not about competition. It is about a partnership that recognizes the value of customizing public education, of giving students as many opportunities to find the learning environment that works best for them.

In Florida, state-sponsored research has shown that the more a public school has children participate in the program, the higher the learning gains are for the children who remain at that public school. This program has helped increase the performance of traditional public schools.

The kind of polarized debate that often surrounds private scholarships tends to obscure our common educational objective. Public education is a collective commitment to each new generation, and nowhere is that pledge more vital than to children who struggle with poverty. To be sure, these scholarships are no miracle cure. But for underprivileged students who are struggling, a different approach can sometimes turn around their lives.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.