With parental school choice, what are we Democrats afraid of?

Education’s parental choice is down to the heart of the matter in Florida. Will it remain a program at the margins? Or will the growing reality of empowering parents actually transform education over the coming years into a system that respond to the needs and desires of society and its families? Into a true public education system?

These scholarship students  joined faith leaders in the Florida Capitol last week to support a bill that would strengthen and expand the program. (Photo by Silver Digital Media)
These scholarship students joined faith leaders in the Florida Capitol last week to support a bill that would strengthen and expand the program. (Photo by Silver Digital Media)

In such a structure, the traditional public schools exist as one delivery method among several – charter schools, private schools, homeschooling, virtual schools, and possibly others to be created. But they are no longer the “public education system” that must be preserved at all costs and to the detriment of the others. Unfortunately, some Democratic lawmakers must still be persuaded.

Look no further than last week’s debate in the House Finance & Taxation Subcommittee, where representatives voted 11-7 along party lines in favor of a bill to strengthen and expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. (The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog with the American Center for School Choice.)

This program will continue to save the state money even after its expansion. It has a multi-year record of academic improvement, documented by an independent analysis. Yet it was bombarded with arguments rooted in doubts and fears rather than rationality or concern for children. Can those of us who are Democrats look at a cost-saving program that is successfully serving tens of thousands of low-income families, with tens of thousands more asking for a chance to participate, and really say, “You are asking for too much too soon”?

One of the most often heard views is no further funding should go to tax credit scholarships until “public education is fully funded.” First, this unicorn chase is a beautiful, yet mythical fairy tale. Nothing is “fully funded,” not our police force, our electric grid, our sewer system, our public transportation system, or our national defense. This is an excuse, if accepted, for doing nothing except plowing money endlessly into the status quo. Second, it is akin to telling your younger child, “No more Christmas presents until your big brother’s wish list is completely fulfilled.”

Accountability seems to be another major concern despite the requirement that a national norm referenced test be administered, and that an independent evaluation of the program’s academics be released annually. The major difference between this program and traditional public schools is parents choose these schools, and can leave whenever they are dissatisfied. When a school is forced upon a family via a zip code, the parent is essentially removed from the equation and other measures, which frankly are not as insightful in most cases, must be imposed.

In Malcom Gladwell’s current book, David and Goliath, he notes humans are not only vulnerable to fear, but prone to being afraid of being afraid. Yet when they have conquered fear, the experience is exhilarating; it promotes self-confidence, and plants the seeds of courage itself. With the empowerment of parents, we have seen no collapse of any local school system; in fact, considerable evidence exists that those systems evolve and adapt rather well. Florida’s latest report suggests the scholarship program has improved the performance of traditional public schools. Why is a giant sector like traditional public education, composed of highly educated adults with an enormous market share, still so afraid?

Lastly, the tired argument of “privatizing our schools” and “profiting off children” seems to be at the core of many objections. Despite the billions of dollars that flow to private entities connected intimately to the traditional public school sector, such as textbook manufacturers, the hint is that something is inherently wrong with empowering parents to select the best school if they think the best school might be a private school.

Building from the work of the Commission on Faith-based Schools, the Florida Interfaith Alliance for School Choice is supporting this bill. More than 280 Florida faith leaders from across the spectrum signed petitions supporting this bill – people with strong moral authority and deep roots in their communities. Like Harriet Tubman with her Underground Railroad and slavery, many of these leaders have been waking up for years thinking about how this unjust education system could be forever changed, as they battled each day to save as many children as they could through their schools. With the Interfaith Alliance, they now have a support vehicle, so they can more easily hold legislators accountable for their votes when they return to their districts. Perhaps some will reconsider by the time the bill makes the House floor.

Gladwell notes also that as often as not, a definition of what is “right” has simply been a way for the privileged to close the door on people on the outside. Ultimately, this is a discussion, as President Obama has reminded us in other areas, about who we are as a people. Do we actually believe that only a quota of parents should be empowered to access the best school for their children?