Jeb Bush: Public schools are not harmed by private school tuition vouchers

BRENDAN FITTERER   |   Times Former Gov. Jeb Bush.
BRENDAN FITTERER | Times Former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Published May 3, 2019

Editor's note: Former Gov. Jeb Bush responds to the Times' editorial published Wednesday, "The death sentence for Florida's public schools.''

By Jeb Bush

Special to the Times

Hyperbole and fear-mongering are the desperate signs of people who have lost conviction in the power of their ideas.

It was disappointing and puzzling to see the Tampa Bay Times editorial board sink to such rhetoric when recently describing the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which will allow more low-income students to pursue the educational options they cannot afford on their own.

Years of research, dozens of academic studies and countless student success stories tell the story that the Times has failed to report. Programs like the Family Empowerment Scholarship have not only improved the outcomes of disadvantaged students, they've also improved the performance of all public schools.

Consider the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship program, which currently provides more than 100,000 low-income students with a scholarship to attend a private school of their choice. These students come from families who can't afford to move to a preferred school district or pay for private school tuition.

The average household income for families in the program is just $25,755. Two-thirds of the students are black or Hispanic, with studies showing that participants enter the program from schools with low academic quality and high rates of violence. Why wouldn't we want to offer these children a different option?

Families seek out this program because it works: students have performed better academically than their peers across the country, including higher rates of going to college and earning a degree.

Unsurprisingly, the program is oversubscribed. At least 13,000 students are on the waiting list, and thousands more want to apply—but could not because of the overwhelming demand. The new Family Empowerment Scholarship will give these lower- and middle-income students an opportunity that wealthier Florida families take for granted.

The Times assumes that because a child chooses to attend a private school of their choice that public schools will somehow be harmed financially. But according to Florida's Office of Economic Demographic and Research, over the next four years public school enrollment in Florida is projected to grow by an additional 94,000 students — one of the fastest growth rates in the nation.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship program is capped at around 46,000 students during that same time frame. So where exactly is the harm?

Perhaps the best question to ask is whether Florida's history of providing scholarships to low-income students has come at the expense of others. It hasn't. Florida public school student graduation rates have increased by more than 30 percentage points over the past two decades And, research repeatedly shows that the test scores of public school students increase at higher rates when there are more educational options in that area.

Even more impressively, Florida was the only state to show gains in fourth and eight grade reading and math on the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, the objective comparison of states known as the "Nation's Report Card."

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Florida's statewide academic growth is due to our strong public schools that have shown tremendous improvement over the past 20 years. Florida's teachers are rightfully proud that their work is the most critical factor in our state's overall success. This improvement has been spurred by an educational landscape where families — and teachers — have more quality options.

And don't forget: Florida lawmakers continue to commit to public schools, budgeting $285 million in teacher bonuses this year as well as an almost $250 per-student funding increase. Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Bill Galvano, Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva and lawmakers from both parties can be proud of their work in ensuring that every Florida student has better access to educational options.

Despite what the Times asserts, this is not the death of public education. Rather, it is the start of incredible new opportunities for tens of thousands of Florida children.

Jeb Bush served as the 43rd governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and is the founder and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.