Guest Column
How Florida’s school choice programs create good citizens | Column
Today, nearly half of Florida’s students attend something other than their assigned district schools.
Gov. Ron DeSantis celebrates after having signed a bill on May 11 that increases eligibility to attend private schools at public expense, during a ceremony at St. John the Apostle School in Hialeah. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Gov. Ron DeSantis celebrates after having signed a bill on May 11 that increases eligibility to attend private schools at public expense, during a ceremony at St. John the Apostle School in Hialeah. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published May 18, 2021

Over the years, 11 high-quality research studies have examined the impact of private school choice programs on core democratic values such as political tolerance and civic engagement. According to the meticulous research and advocacy group EdChoice, six found positive impact, five found no impact and none found negative impact.

To some, this is counterintuitive. Aren’t public schools the place where those values are instilled? How could students who choose private schools become more tolerant, more likely to volunteer for community service, more likely to better grasp basic knowledge about government and politics?

John Legg
John Legg

There are many reasons. But I think this is the good that comes when people are afforded the dignity and respect that comes with freedom, especially the freedom to determine the educational destinies of their children.

I applaud Florida for moving toward a pluralistic, portfolio-based system of public education that better works with the grain of human nature and, at the end of the day, is likely to result in a number of positive outcomes, including expansion of common ground, tolerance and understanding.

For public education to live up to its promise it must open the doors of opportunity for all students. Unfortunately, oftentimes the public school system cannot meet the unique needs of families. Far too many students disadvantaged by poverty and disability fall through the cracks. For too often public school’s uniformity is a source of conflict rather than a melting pot for assimilation.

The pluralistic and portfolio education system we are embracing in Florida has the same end goals in mind, but it doesn’t force everyone to follow the same path. It’s popular, it’s dynamic, and it’s working.

Thirty years ago, 10 percent of Florida students attended private schools, a handful attended magnet schools, and everybody else went to assigned district schools. Today, nearly half the students attend something other than their assigned district schools. Parents can choose from charter schools, private schools, virtual schools and a growing menu of innovative district schools — magnet schools, career academies, early college programs, and on and on. This is a sea change in how public education is delivered, and “vouchers” are only a small, but needed, part of the mix.

Choice has not hurt public education in Florida. Quite the opposite. A graduation rate that sunk to 52 percent in the 1990s is now at 90 percent. Florida now ranks No. 2 in America in AP exam performance, and No. 3 in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week. The trend lines for students of color and students with disabilities are especially steep. And they’ve risen even though Florida has among the highest rates of low-income students in America, and among the lowest per-pupil spending.

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Choice helped unleash this. It has given more parents more power to access what works for their kids, and it has spurred schools in all sectors to up their game.

Expanding choice has not come at the expense of diversity, either. Of seven high-quality studies that investigated the impact of private school choice on racial and ethnic diversity, six found positive effects and one found no effect. In Florida, it’s not hard to find private schools that are far more diverse than they used to be, and far more diverse than nearby public schools — because choice scholarships are giving a far more diverse group of families access to them.

Nothing is worse for democracy than kids growing up ignorant and intolerant. The best available evidence shows choice programs yield better outcomes for academics, civic participation and exposure to diversity. We should follow that evidence.

In this era of hyper-polarization, a pluralistic, portfolio-based education system is in fact a powerful tool that can help us all build bridges instead of walls.

John Legg, co-founder and CFO of Dayspring Academy charter school, has been a school administrator and classroom teacher in Pasco County for more than 20 years. He was chairman of the Senate K-12 Committee from 2012-2016, speaker pro-tempore of the Florida House of Representatives from 2010-2012, and chairman of the House K-12 Committee from 2008-2010. He is also a member of the board of directors of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer Florida’s education choice scholarships.