Does more school choice ‘lift all ships’?

Can giving low-income families more access to private schools spur the growth of more school choice options in the public school system?

erik fresenThe question came up during the most recent debate over legislation that would accelerate the growth of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, asked whether the bill could help spur “school boards and school districts to create more options for magnet schools.”

Pointing to the growth of magnet programs and other public school choices in his hometown, the chair of the House Education Appropriations panel, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said he believed it could.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the explosion of magnet schools and of schools of choice within the public school system happened at the exact same time that options outside of the conventional public school system were happening,” he said.

The New York Times recently highlighted the growth of Miami-Dade’s magnet programs in a story about the revitalization of magnet programs in urban districts around the country. Originally conceived as a way to increase demographic diversity in the era of racial integration, the Times observed magnet programs have seen renewed growth “as traditional public schools come under increasing pressure from charter schools and vouchers for private schools.”

The number of children in Miami-Dade County attending magnet programs — which admit students from anywhere in the district and focus on themes like art, law or technology — has grown by 35 percent in the past four years. These children now account for about one in six students in the district.

The pattern is similar across the country. There are now about 2.8 million students attending magnet schools — more than the nearly 2.6 million enrolled in charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated.

“That’s what we’ve always theorized from the moment that we started talking about choice and choice options was that, not only would it lift all ships,” Fresen said, but it would also spur school districts to create new programs “to meet different needs of students.”

“I do think that the more that you expand choice options outside of the conventional public school system, the more the conventional public school system will innovate itself, and start responding to those demands and those changes,” he said.

Adkins’ question about magnet programs came on the heels of a series of questions from Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, who questioned whether changes in the bill would shift the program away from its “core mission,” which he described as giving low-income families the ability to remove their kids from “failing schools.”

While the academic performance of a student’s zoned public school has never been a factor in eligibility for tax credit scholarships, the bill would remove requirements that students attend public schools for at least one year before qualifying for a scholarship, and would make partial scholarships available to families whose incomes are currently too high to qualify for the program.

Fresen noted many of Florida’s public schools have improved their performance since the program was first conceived. He said the focus of school choice programs is less about responding to “hemorrhaging” achievement in public schools than it is about giving families options, public or private, that are tailored to the needs of their individual children.

“Maybe my child is just better suited in a smaller school, in an environment that’s smaller, or in an environment that’s better suited to us culturally, or whatever it may be,” he said.