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Sara Clements: How Florida is addressing reading deficiencies through parent choice

The idea is to let parents control these extra dollars to supplement their child’s education in the way they see fit.

Over and over, studies show what we all know to be true: that when parents are more involved in their children’s education, those children perform better in school.

Proponents of choice in education see this as one reason why parents should be able to choose where — and even how — their kids get educated; i.e., if parents are helping to make those decisions along the way, they will be more invested in the outcomes.

Yet, despite the growing popularity of private, charter, virtual, and home education opportunities around the country, the vast majority of American students still attend a traditional public school in grades K-12.

And despite our schools’ best efforts, too many students are struggling with the basics of reading. What if we could infuse parent choice into literacy intervention decisions for our most struggling public-school students?

In 2018, Florida did just that. Sunshine State lawmakers created Reading Scholarship Accounts, a first-of-its-kind scholarship program for public third- through fifth-grade students struggling in reading.

Rather than a scholarship to attend private school, the state provides parents an account — currently worth $500 — to spend on tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials, and curriculum. The idea is to let parents control these extra dollars to supplement their child’s education in the way they see fit.

According to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers the program on behalf of the state, the program served 5,375 students in its first year.

The account structure is modeled after what has become known as an education savings account, or ESA, nationally.

Much like the health savings accounts or flexible spending accounts offered as part of many employee benefit plans, typical ESAs — like Empowerment Scholarship Accounts in Arizona and the Gardiner Scholarship Program in Florida — are intended to offset the costs of educational expenses for families who are looking for a customized education plan outside of the traditional school setting. That typically means outside the school district — but not in this case.

This ESA program is only available for kids in public schools.

An extra $500 is great for students and families. And as it turns out, it’s also great for school districts. Innovative districts and even schools, can set up their own after school or summer intervention programs and recruit students to attend.

Much-needed help for students struggling with reading AND a boost of funding for schools, in a time when “choice” often feels like a loss for public education?

I call that a win-win.

Learn more about Reading Scholarship Accounts at the Florida Department of Education’s website or, if you are a Florida resident and think your child may be eligible, apply online at StepUpForStudentsorg.

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Sara Clements is a vice president in the State Government Relations group of McGuireWoods Consulting. A former public school teacher, she was Florida Legislative Affairs Director for Foundation for Excellence/Education.

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