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Let the parents choose

Moms and dads want the best for their children. That includes a high-quality education that prepares their child with the knowledge and skills to pursue their dreams and achieve their God-given potential. Raising a child to be a successful and self-sufficient adult is one of the great rewards of parenting. • Providing the best education for each child doesn't necessarily mean providing the same education for every child. A one-size-fits-all approach to education might have been the only way to educate millions of children back in the 1950s, but times have changed. Today, it's possible to customize education for every student in America, starting in Florida.

During the last decade, Florida has made progress toward customizing education for individual students. Parents of special needs students can opt for the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities, which is a publicly funded voucher that allows families to choose any school — public or private — that best meets the needs of their child. Families with low incomes can opt for a Tax Credit Scholarship, funded by tax-deductible contributions, that also gives parents the ability to choose the best educational environment for their child.

The time is now for Florida to build on the success of these models and expand choice to all parents.

If you believe, like I do, that all children can learn, then education needs to be organized around the goal of academic success for each and every child. In a learning environment that offers the right mix of rigor, motivation and support, students will excel.

Providing all parents with the financial freedom to choose the right school for their child means every child has a greater opportunity to succeed. When students succeed in school, all Floridians benefit. A highly educated, skilled work force attracts capital investment and the high-wage jobs that come with it, creating a chain reaction that ultimately produces prosperity and a high standard of living.

A decade of research confirms that competition improves the quality of education in public schools. In the 2001 Education Freedom Index, respected education researcher Jay Greene found that educational choice correlates with rising academic achievement. Students who are eligible for vouchers or scholarships but choose to remain in public school also benefit.

Finally, providing more choices saves money for both parents and taxpayers. A 2008 study by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found that for every dollar spent providing parental choice through the Tax Credit Scholarship, taxpayers saved $1.49. With the potential for greater academic achievement, the return on investment is greater.

Education savings accounts

In a few months, the Legislature is likely to consider a bill that would extend choice to all parents. The law would empower parents with the ability to open a special bank account — an Education Savings Account — to fund their child's education. Parents would be eligible for an annual grant for education — about 85 percent of per pupil funding that is provided to public schools — to use to send their children to the school of their choice — public, charter, private or virtual.

Last year, the state paid almost $7,000 for every student who attended public school. Under the proposed system, the state would continue to provide the $7,000 for every student who attended public school but would also provide nearly $6,000 to parents for every student who opted for an alternative to public school — saving taxpayers $1,000 per student that could then be redirected back into the public education system.

To really empower parents for their child's education, lawmakers could give families the flexibility to stretch this public funding beyond K-12. Parents could be given the ability to fund dual enrollment in college courses or even full-time enrollment in college after high school graduation. For example, a parent might only spend $4,500 of the $6,000 of the annual grant for elementary, middle and high school, and use the remaining amount toward the purchase of a prepaid college contract.

Imagine empowering families with the ability to fund their child's education from kindergarten through college with the same amount of money that is currently being spent on K-12 education.

Myth and reality

Opponents of parental choice will offer up the same obstructionist arguments for this idea as they do for the current choice programs offered to disabled and low-income students.

"Vouchers and parental choice will drain money from public schools."

History disproves this claim. During the last decade, Florida has expanded educational options and funding for public education has increased by 50 percent during the same period. More fundamentally, preserving the system should not be the priority. Florida should be funding a high-quality education — regardless of who provides it — to prepare students to succeed in the most competitive global economy the world has ever known.

"We shouldn't give public money to private schools."

Fact is, Florida does that now. Parents can use a publicly funded voucher to send their 4-year-old child to any eligible pre-K program of their choice, including private school. Students can also use a Bright Futures Scholarship to attend a public or private college.

"We should work to improve public schools, not abandon them."

Everyone agrees with that, but it is not true to imply that improving public schools and offering parental choice are mutually exclusive concepts. We can do both.

We can adequately fund our public schools and increase our commitment to ensuring every child has an excellent teacher in the classroom at the same time we offer choices (whether public, private, charter or even virtual) for those students who need something different.

Knowing that a quality education means the difference between a successful, self-sufficient life and a lifetime of poverty and dependence on government, how can we deny a child a lifeline to better future?

"Private schools are not accountable."

Private schools must meet the same state health, safety and welfare laws as public schools. Students who use state funding for private school must be assessed annually, either with the FCAT or a nationally recognized standardized test. Ultimately, parents will hold schools accountable for their child's academic success.

When schools don't perform, parents will vote with their feet, taking their child and their tuition elsewhere.

Parents or government?

The real debate comes down to just one question. Who makes better decisions about a child's education — parents or the government?

I believe parents know better than government what's best for their child. Parents know when their child is enthused or bored, engaged or struggling, and learning or falling behind.

Parents also know whether their child needs a more structured and disciplined approach to learning or whether their child is motivated to pursue their education with more autonomy.

More than a decade ago, Florida advanced bold legislation to transform education in the Sunshine State.

The results of reform are clear. More students are achieving on or above grade level, graduating from high school and entering college prepared for success.

The transformation of our public schools was reaffirmed again last week.

Florida has gone from the bottom of the nation to a model for the nation, earning a fifth-place ranking according to Quality Counts, an annual evaluation of education in the United States by Education Week.

Florida, again, has the opportunity to transform education for the 21st century and create an education system where every child flourishes. Are we bold enough to do it?

Patricia Levesque is the executive director for the Foundation for Florida's Future, founded by

former Gov. Jeb Bush. She had served as his deputy chief of staff for education in the capital.

Before that, she was staff director of education policy under then-House Speaker Daniel Webster.

She recently served as a leader on Gov. Rick Scott's transition education team.

Let the parents choose 01/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 3:30am]

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