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Ron Matus: Burying good news about Florida public schools

“The narrative” is hard to kill.

When it comes to Florida’s public education system, good news does not travel fast. Especially if it has anything to do with education choice.

Last year, a sham “analysis” from the Florida Education Association suggested Florida’s newest private school choice scholarship, the Family Empowerment Scholarship, would harm public schools. The response from Florida media? No less than 10 stories under a stack of scary headlines, and, in every case but one, no attempt to even run the “analysis” past any other source.

This year, by contrast, a rigorous new study from nationally respected researchers finds that instead of hurting public schools, Florida private school scholarships are boosting public school outcomes.

The response from Florida media?

Crickets.

Three weeks after its release, the study from the National Bureau of Economic Research hasn’t generated a single story in Florida. This, even though school choice in Florida is under the most intense media scrutiny it’s faced in years.

To be sure, Florida media outlets routinely ignore other evidence showing Florida public schools on the rise. Last month, the latest College Board report showed Florida again ranks No. 3 in America in the percentage of graduating seniors who’ve passed college-caliber Advanced Placement exams. The response from Florida media? Again, not a single story.

Florida public schools haven’t reached the promised land. But they’ve come a long way since the 1990s — when barely half of Florida students graduated from high school — and they shouldn’t be denied the accolades they deserve.

But they will be. Acknowledging their progress would mean conceding the expansion of education choice has not hurt Florida’s education system — and probably helped.

The new NBER paper shows exactly that. As the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship expanded — it now serves more than 100,000 low-income students — students in public schools most impacted by the competition saw higher test scores, fewer absences, fewer suspensions. In other words, public schools didn’t get decimated when more parents got more power to choose. They got better.

“The narrative” is hard to kill. Last year, a top state newspaper editorialized that the creation of the Family Empowerment Scholarship was “the death sentence for Florida’s public schools.” This year’s proposed expansion spurred a five-alarm op-ed from a school board member whose district, ironically, has the state’s biggest black-white achievement gap. “Time is running out,” the board member wrote. Stop the march to privatization, she implored.

The shrug at Florida’s Advanced Placement success is even more curious. The outcomes are yet more evidence that Florida public schools continue to get better at serving the low-income students who are now a growing majority of our public education system.

Of the 53,543 graduates in the Florida Class of 2019 who passed an AP exam, 40.3 percent got exam fee reductions available to low-income students. The states ahead of Florida, Massachusetts and Connecticut, had fee reduction rates of 18.6 percent and 14.9 percent, respectively.

Given that it’s low-income parents who are most apt to seek school choice options, shouldn’t traditional public school supporters be the first to shout these results from the rooftops?

Maybe if media coverage didn’t suggest the sky was falling, they’d venture up there — and see the big picture of a public education system that really is getting better.

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Ron Matus is a former state education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and director of policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students. The nonprofit helps administer five state education choice programs, including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empowerment Scholarship.

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