William Mattox: Celebrating Florida School Choice Month

America is busy celebrating National School Choice Week — with more than 16,000 events taking place all over the country. But here in Tallahassee, it feels more like Florida School Choice Month, because two landmark January events are apt to have a profound influence on the educational options of Florida students for years to come.

The first event took place during the initial week of the legislative session, when both the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved, and Gov. Rick Scott signed, a bill to permanently establish the Gardiner Scholarship program for special-needs students.

Championed by Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, this innovative program provides Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSAs), which parents with special-needs children can draw from to purchase an array of educational resources for their children.

Unlike other scholarship programs that provide tuition for “bundled” educational services at a single school, the Gardiner Scholarship program offers parents enormous flexibility. Money can be used to pay for instructional materials, classroom programs, tutorial services, learning therapies, digital resources, and the like — none of which have to be supplied by the same educational provider.

Not surprisingly, the flexibility to “customize” their child’s education by buying “unbundled” services has proved to be a big hit with parents of special-needs students. In each of the two years the program was tested, applications for the scholarships far exceeded their supply.

Today, about 3,000 students take part in the program. And that number will soon rise thanks to a considerable expansion in the program’s funding (to $71.2 million) as part of the Legislature’s 2016 effort.

Florida taxpayers should rejoice at the codification of the Gardiner Scholarship, not just because it provides aid to needy students, but also because it sets an important precedent in education funding. Since Gardiner parents can roll over any unused monies from one year to the next — or put money into a college savings fund for their child — the program encourages recipients to seek out the highest quality services at the lowest possible costs.

This market-based incentive structure has the potential to revolutionize K-12 spending. For if it were adopted for all Florida students, taxpayers would get the greatest possible “bang-for-buck” in K-12 education.

And who could be against that?

The second major January event proved to be equally extraordinary. To commemorate MLK Day 2016, more than 10,000 people from all over the state gathered in Tallahassee to protest a lawsuit filed by the Florida teacher’s union. The suit threatens to shut down a successful tax credit scholarship program for needy children that serves more than 70,000 students.

The “Rally in Tally” represented the largest school choice gathering in Florida history. It featured a keynote address from Martin Luther King III. Throughout the morning, marchers heard from other civil rights leaders, parents, and students — including Valentin Mendez, a Miami high school junior who credits the scholarship program with giving him the chance to attend a Little Havana private school where he is thriving. (Prior to receiving a scholarship, Valentin was a “sixth grade dropout” who had been the target of bullying at two different public schools.)

In all, the Rally in Tally attracted more than 100 African-American ministers, more than 100 Latino ministers, and sponsorship from the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, and Agudath Israel.

Together, the rally and the passage of the Gardiner Scholarship demonstrate that Florida can and should continue to be a national leader in providing educational options to needy students. Let’s hope this momentum continues and that every month soon becomes Florida School Choice Month.


William Mattox is the director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.  


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