For two decades, Florida has been a national leader in spurring choice, competition and customization in public education. We are not about to let up now.
In recent days, the House and Senate voted to pass legislation, supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis, that will create a new K-12 scholarship. The Family Empowerment Scholarship is another in a series of calibrated expansions of educational choice, and, like the state's other scholarships, will undoubtedly prove to be academically effective, fiscally prudent — and hugely popular with parents.
The new scholarship will bring relief to parents of 13,000 students on the wait list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That scholarship for lower-income students has served 100,000 in each of the past two years. But because of increasing demand and a slower rate of growth in fundraising, it has not been able to serve all students who were found eligible.
The Florida Empowerment Scholarship also modestly expands income eligibility so more working families can access schools they deem best. Thousands still cannot do that; they make too much money to qualify for the existing scholarship yet cannot afford to move to neighborhoods zoned for the district schools they prefer, or pay tuition for private schools. The empowerment scholarship gives them more options. However, children who qualify for free and reduced lunch are given priority every year. Last year the average household income of families on the tax credit program was $25,000 for a household of four.
Contrary to myth, it's neither unprecedented nor unconstitutional. For years now, the state has been spending billions of dollars on tuition at private and often faith-based schools, through a variety of scholarships in pre-K, in K-12 and in higher education. Critics who attack this new scholarship, but look the other way with all the others, are motivated by power, not principle.
The outcomes for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which serves as a model for the new scholarship, are instructive. According to Florida Tax Watch, the tax credit scholarship is worth 59 percent of per-pupil funding for students in district schools, which is why every fiscal impact study has concluded it saves taxpayer money. Test score analyses show those students were typically the lowest performers in their prior public schools, yet the Urban Institute found they're 43 percent more likely to enroll in four-year colleges, and 20 percent more likely to earn bachelor's degrees.
This is what happens when more parents are given more power to drive quality in public education. They find what works and exercise accountability in far more exacting ways than heaps of regulations ever will.
Contrary to other myths, expanding options has not come at the expense of our traditional public schools. Florida has one of the biggest charter school sectors in America, the biggest private school choice program, the biggest education savings account and the biggest state-run virtual school. It has some of the biggest and best district choice programs, too. Think magnet schools, career academies, IB programs, dual enrollment, etc. Today, over 30 percent of all Florida K-12 students funded by the taxpayers attend something other than zoned neighborhood schools.
As options have proliferated, Florida has progressed. In the late 1990s, we barely graduated half of our students; now our graduation rate tops 86 percent. We rank No. 3 in America in the percentage of graduating seniors passing college-caliber Advanced Placement exams, behind only Massachusetts and Connecticut. Last year, Education Week ranked Florida No. 4 in K-12 achievement.
The legislation that creates the empowerment scholarship includes other measures to keep these trend lines rising. It re-works the Best and Brightest teacher bonus, and expands possibilities for Schools of Hope, so, again, more parents can have more options. The Legislature also set aside $285 million for the bonuses, and proposed a per-pupil spending increase of $248.
We will continue investing in our fast-improving traditional schools. We will continue expanding options, too. The evidence shows that dual approach is putting more and more of our students on the path to success.
State Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr, R-Hialeah, is chairman of the Senate Education Committee.