Parents whose children are disadvantaged by poverty or disability frequently send emotional thank-you notes to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit I help lead.
Through the programs we administer, they're given the opportunity to do what other parents often take for granted — to choose the school and/or educational program that best fits their child's needs. Finally having that power moves many of them to tears, and their words move us to shed a few, too.
Thankfully, the days of crying over educational options are slowly but surely coming to an end.
This fall, for the first time, more than 100,000 lower-income students are using Florida Tax Credit Scholarships to enroll in private schools their parents choose, with 11,000 in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. By the end of this school year, nearly 10,000 other students with autism, Down syndrome and other special needs will be using Gardiner Scholarships, another state-supported vehicle for accessing options. Step Up administers both programs.
These notable numbers — and the growing ranks of families behind them — are another sure sign the scholarships have become indispensable to Florida's public education system. It's also more evidence that Florida is serious about customizing and democratizing public education.
By customizing, I mean spurring more options to match the unique needs of more students. By democratizing, I mean ensuring more families can access those options.
A generation ago, about 90 percent of students went to assigned neighborhood schools. The rest went to private schools. I remember when magnet schools and International Baccalaureate programs were new and divisive. Critics claimed these options would destroy neighborhood schools. Now they're just two of many options flourishing on Florida's educational landscape.
Today, 45 percent of all Pre-K-12 students in Florida — 1.6 million and growing — attend something other than assigned neighborhood schools. And school districts themselves have been key to this revolution. They're offering everything from career academies, arts schools, and Cambridge programs to fundamental schools, dual enrollment and virtual schools.
This progress jibes with what science and common sense tell us about human nature. Parents are wired to love their children and want the best for them. That's why they want to be in the driver's seat when it comes to their children's education. Some want culinary institutes. Some want "no excuses" charter schools. Some want schools that reflect their faith. As long as parents want these options and they're serving the public good, there's no good reason to limit them.
Parents with lower incomes or those who have children with disabilities are especially keen on having this freedom. Their children struggle the most.
Two-thirds of students using tax credit scholarships are black or Hispanic. Their average family income is $25,000 a year. Their parents can't exercise choice the way affluent parents do, by moving to suburbs or forking over full tuition for private school. But thanks to the scholarships, they have 1,700 additional options to choose from, including more than 200 around Tampa Bay.
Test data shows scholarship students were typically the lowest performers in public schools but are now making steady progress. Research also shows students in public schools are making gains due to competitive effects, and that the scholarship — worth 60 percent of per-pupil spending in Florida public schools — is saving taxpayer money that can be reinvested in public schools.
At its core, though, this movement's motivations go beyond funding and test scores. Choice promotes ownership, which spurs responsibility and investment, which bolsters community and democracy. Empowered parents are engaged parents. They'll raise standards and hold providers accountable more than any well-meaning bureaucracy.
They'll also keep talking to lawmakers. Only one Democrat in the Legislature voted to create tax credit scholarships in 2001. But in 2010, nearly half the Democrats voted for the expansion that paved the way for today's 100,000 milestone. Likewise, many Democrats opposed creation of Gardiner Scholarships in 2014. But subsequent expansions have earned nearly unanimous bipartisan support.
To be sure, there will be more growing pains. It's tough finding the right balance on funding, accountability and governance in a public education system that is increasingly diverse, customized and democratized. It's healthy to have spirited, fact-based debates about all these issues.
At the same time, there shouldn't be anything political or controversial about parents having power to determine how their children are educated. The day is coming where there won't be.
Doug Tuthill is president of Step Up For Students and a former president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.