‘No longer an experiment:’ FL’s parental choice debate is shifting with maturity

President Gaetz (left) and Speaker Weatherford
President Gaetz (left) and Speaker Weatherford

One called for more expansion. The other, for more accountability.

This spring, intentionally or not, Florida legislative leaders highlighted twin themes for the state’s parental school choice programs that not only marked the session that ended last week, but will define many more to come.

It was House Speaker Will Weatherford who stressed the former. He touched off one of the most rancorous debates of Florida’s 2014 legislative session when, more than a month before it began, he called for a “massive expansion” of education options for parents.

And it was Senate President Don Gaetz, halfway through the session, who offered the yin to Weatherford’s yang, explaining the Senate’s push for new accountability measures for the tax credit scholarship program.

“The program has grown to a place where it is no longer an experiment,” he told the Associated Press. “It is no longer a pilot. It is an accepted way for families to exercise choice in education.”

Whether they’re talking about charter schools or private-school scholarships, that’s been the reality for the past two legislative sessions under Gaetz and Weatherford: School choice is no longer an experiment. It’s now mainstream. It will continue to grow. But as it does, questions have shifted from whether parental choice programs should be allowed to expand to how best to regulate them, how to create more attractive options in the traditional public school system, and what the next phase of experimentation should look like.

These are questions that will increasingly emerge in other states, but Florida is ahead of the curve. It ranks at or near the top in enrollment for charter schools, virtual schools and private schools via vouchers and tax credit scholarships, and there are no signs of slowing.

Accountability and regulation

The shifting focus cuts across all sectors. Take charter schools.

This year, the Senate opted not to pass a major charter school bill. Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said that was in part because lawmakers were waiting to see the effects of changes they passed last year, including a bill requiring the Department of Education to create a model charter contract for school districts.

Last year’s law also brought charters under more financial scrutiny. The effort was supported by some charter school advocates who wanted to prevent cases, like a handful of high-profile ones from Central Florida, from damaging a movement that is getting more attention as it takes on a larger share of Florida’s school enrollment.

“I think the growth of charter schools is going to bring more scrutiny to the charter schools themselves,” Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said in an interview. “They’re going to come eventually under the same microscope that we are.”

In coming years, the growth of charter schools is likely to bring to a head another issue that figured prominently this year: funding for facilities. This year, charter schools are poised to see an overall reduction in their capital funding, even as their enrollment increased by about 10 percent.

Legg said as charter schools continue to grow, it’s becoming increasingly untenable for them to rely on annual appropriations through the Public Education Capital Outlay. Lawmakers in future years will likely have to look for a more sustainable funding model, which he said could trigger a broader debate about how charter schools use that funding, and how to turn public charter schools – and their buildings – into “community assets.”

“School choice as a whole is maturing,” Legg said. “It’s here to stay, so while there’s a desire to see it expand we also need to have accountability” in all programs – over both academics and operations.

Going into this year’s session, Gaetz suggested that tax credit scholarship students should take the same state assessments as their counterparts in public schools.

The bill that finally passed, though, didn’t go that far. Test results will be publicly reported for more schools that participate in the program, and organizations that administer the program, including Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, will be subject to annual state audits.

Those provisions were important to lawmakers who opposed the final bill, including state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a longtime educator who also leads the state school superintendents association.

“Those who run the corporate tax scholarship program, they should embrace it,” he said. “They need to open up their books and say, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ especially if they’re successful.”

Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said it’s important not to conflate accountability with regulation. Expanded parental choice creates a marketplace where parents can select the options that work best for their children – and leave those that don’t.

“Accountability comes in many forms, and the one that’s most important is parental accountability,” she said.

Greater customization

After the session adjourned, Gaetz proclaimed that “we got the accountability, academic and financial, that is important to some people, and we got the expansion of school choice and opportunities for upward mobility through education.”

While tax credit scholarships received most of the ink afterwards, he was talking about a larger package.

SB 850 merged several pieces of school choice legislation, including an expansion of career education programs, an effort Gaetz began as a schools superintendent in Okaloosa County and pushed for as Senate president.

But one of the most significant changes in the bill has been somewhat underplayed. Florida was one of at least seven states to consider education savings accounts for special-needs students this spring. If Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill, it would be the first to enact them this year (and the second state overall, after Arizona).

Education savings accounts are seen by some parental choice supporters as the cutting edge in choice programs because they allow parents to customize learning beyond simply choosing a school. Instead, they could mix and match learning options from a growing menu of education providers.

It helped that the proposal had the backing of Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who’s in line to become Senate president. He said the program would allow families to “come to the department and say, ‘my child needs just a little bit more speech therapy,’ or ‘my child needs a little bit more occupational therapy,’ and there will be a program for them, to prepare them for the education system.”

Gardiner, who is the father of a child with Down syndrome, has made a multi-year project of expanding educational opportunities for children with disabilities.

But the new proposal also hints at what’s to come more broadly in parental choice.

Last year, the Legislature passed a law that could soon allow students to take Massive Open Online Courses (better known as MOOCs) for high school credit. Lawmakers like Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, and Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, see that effort – which both say they hope to revisit next session – as a foundation for a more expansive course choice program.

“We have to cater to the students,” Diaz said. “Now we’re in a transition phase, but I think we have to go and teach them where they are, and course customization and course choice is definitely part of that.”

The benefits of customized learning, supporters say, won’t be limited to students in fringe programs. Levesque said they can extend to children who attend public schools, which are also increasingly tailoring services to meet students’ specific needs and preferences.

“Children learn at different paces. Children learn with different tools. Children learn with different teachers,” she said. “I think our goal would be in all of education, wherever parent decides to send their child, that education becomes more customizable.”