Hage & Tuthill: Private, Charter, Voucher—When School Reformers Unite to Give Families Diverse Choices, Kids Win

A generation ago, school choice in Florida was on the fringe. Roughly 90 percent of students attended zoned neighborhood schools, or schools to which they were assigned for desegregation. Maybe 10 percent attended private schools. But for a few trend-setting magnet schools, that was it.

Today, choice in Florida is mainstream. Forty-five percent of all students in pre-K-12 — more than 1.6 million — now attend something other than their assigned schools.

More than 500,000 are enrolled in state-supported, privately operated options, thanks to charter schools, vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and education savings accounts. Most of the rest are in district options, including magnet schools, career academies, International Baccalaureate programs, and open enrollment plans that give parents more power to choose beyond neighborhood schools.

We appreciate all of them.

Some might find that sentiment odd, coming from leaders of America’s fastest-growing charter school management company and the nation’s largest private school choice program. But it’s not odd to us.

Step Up for Students administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which serves 98,000 low-income and working-class students this year, and the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account program for 7,500 students with special needs. Charter Schools USA manages 84 schools in seven states, including 54 in Florida. Two-thirds of its 70,000 students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch.

We are agnostic about the educational choices families make. At the same time, we believe all children should have access to the options that best meet their needs, particularly children disadvantaged by poverty or disability. The more choices there are, and the more parents can access them, the more public education is strengthened. Those core principles are driving the new normal in Florida.

We feel compelled to share our views, given claims of a growing schism between supporters of charter schools and supporters of private school choice programs. In Florida, there is no schism. We support each other, just as we support choice-friendly school districts like Miami-Dade that are hustling to provide more options.

We don’t view ourselves as competitors with other options. We don’t think one option is necessarily better than another. Every child is different. Therefore, we need a diverse set of learning options to meet the needs of every child. 

Maybe a career academy where a student can better see the relevance of his academic workload is the ticket. Maybe a charter where teachers are given freedom to smartly innovate does the trick. Maybe it’s a faith component in a private school that helps a struggling student finally gain traction. Maybe it’s a traditional neighborhood school that’s the best fit. That’s the power and promise of choice.

We also reject the idea that charter schools are somehow in conflict with programs that provide families with greater access to private schools, such as pre-K-12 vouchers and scholarships. Or that some choice programs are less accountable than others.

School accountability encompasses more than government regulation. It also includes the accountability that comes when parents have the power to choose one school over another. Where to draw the line on that continuum depends on the extent of choice, the level of state-supported funding, the population of students served, and other factors. We should continue to strive for the right regulatory/choice balance in every sector, but we should also acknowledge that one-size-fits-all accountability doesn’t make any more sense than other one-size-fits-all education solutions.

Unnecessary bickering between education sectors undermines our ability to defeat our real enemies — poverty, ignorance, and despair. Every time we turn against each other, students lose and hopelessness wins.

In Florida, we celebrate all our student and school accomplishments, not just private and charter. Over the past 20 years, Florida has reached record highs in high school graduation and college enrollment rates. Its low-income fourth-graders rank No. 1 in the nation in reading (after being nearly last in the 1990s). Its graduating seniors rank No. 4 in the percentage passing college-caliber Advanced Placement exams. Florida is racking up these accomplishments even though it has one of the nation’s highest rates of low-income students. We have a long way to go, but we’re headed in the right direction.

It’s tough to tease out which policies led to those outcomes. But we don’t think it’s a coincidence that trend lines rose as school choice blossomed.

Let’s continue to have healthy debates about choice, accountability, and everything else in our space. But let’s also remember that our common goals far outweigh whatever differences we may have.

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