The right to a publicly funded education is a promise our state makes to every student, and on Thursday, Florida House Speaker Paul Renner and members of the Legislature took bold steps to deliver on that promise by creating a universal education savings account program.
For many students, their zoned neighborhood school fails to fully meet their needs. Sometimes they’re better served at a nearby public school, public charter school or private school. And for some students it’s a blend of multiple education providers.
Renner’s proposal expands the Florida Empowerment Scholarship program, making public education funding more flexible and putting all students first. Since I signed Florida’s first school choice program into law in 1999, our state has led the school choice movement for more than two decades, focusing almost exclusively on those students who need the most support: low-income families, students assigned to failing schools and students with special needs. Over the course of 25 years, the program has demonstrated overwhelming demand from families along with impressive results, especially among students facing the greatest odds.
In 2019, a study by the Urban Institute compared students who used Florida’s low-income school choice scholarship with their peers who remained in their traditional public school. The study found school choice students were 43 percent more likely to graduate high school and enroll in a four-year college by exercising school choice.
It’s results like this that caused the program’s enrollment to skyrocket, becoming the nation’s largest school choice program. And while more than 100,000 students can enroll annually — albeit just a small percentage of Florida’s total 3.4 million students — tens of thousands of families are left on waiting lists each year.
Yet results and studies can only tell you so much — the life-changing human impact is immeasurable. Ashley Elliott of Lakeland was on the verge of falling through the cracks. After failing to assimilate to her first school, she was moved to an alternative school, where she felt she was already a lost cause. It wasn’t until a teacher intervened and helped Ashley use Florida’s school choice program to access a private school fitting her needs that she was able to succeed. Today, Ashley credits that teacher and Florida’ school choice program for transforming her life.
It’s a story I heard countless times when I served as governor, and it’s a story I hear often when I travel the country. By empowering parents, who know what is best for their children, school choice unlocked a door that was closed — the door to a better education and a better future.
Now, this new legislation will enable all Florida students to have this opportunity. It puts Florida on the path toward creating the most advanced and innovative education funding program in the nation by making every student eligible for an education scholarship account. These programs allow families to direct their child’s share of education funding to pay for tuition, educational material, tutoring or even a blend of options if a family chooses to part-time enroll in a private school and a public school. The legislation will also eliminate the waitlist for specials needs families wanting access to an education scholarship account.
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Sadly, bold ideas from courageous leaders always face detractors — I can already hear them now. It will consist of the well-funded special interest groups and those who fear funding will leave their preferred system. Whenever families are given choices, criticism is levied from those who see education as a zero-sum game, as though giving a child opportunity, a family more freedom, and providing more funding flexibility “harms” an education system. It’s all nonsense.
For the past quarter century that school choice has existed in Florida, the Legislature has continued to increase funding for district schools and increase pay for educators, and a 2020 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when parents are empowered with choices, all schools improved.
And that’s why this legislation matters — helping all students, lifting all boats.
The purpose of education is simple — it’s the key ingredient to self determination and the bedrock upon which our country was founded — enabling every child to access the skills and knowledge to live a life of purpose.
Under the House speaker’s leadership, Florida has the opportunity to create the nation’s most robust school choice program — leveling the playing field for all students to access the education that meets their needs. For too long, public education funding was wholly controlled by a monopoly, and nearly every student was required and expected to attend their government-zoned school. It didn’t matter if the school was failing, if the child was struggling or if better options were available. Unless a family could pay out of pocket, public education funding didn’t follow the student, it funded a singular system.
Florida began challenging that antiquated funding model two decades ago, and now Florida stands on the verge of restoring the original intent of publicly funding education — by funding individual students — so each child can reach their full God-given potential.
This is the future of education. It’s part of the fabric of freedom we hold dear as a nation — that individuality should be celebrated, and education should be cherished.
Jeb Bush, governor of Florida from 1999-2007, is founder and chairman of ExcelinEd and ExcelinEd in Action.