A funny thing happened last fall while many governors were yielding to teacher union demands to keep schools closed: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis not only found that it was safe to open schools, but that education policy could be a magnet for attracting new residents to the Sunshine State.
In recent months, DeSantis has often recounted stories of meeting families who moved to Florida because our schools are open. And while some may think this migration will end once schools are open everywhere, the truth is Florida could easily become our nation’s unrivaled “education destination” (to borrow House Education Committee Chairman Chris Latvala’s fabulous phrase).
Here’s why: in the “new normal,” the number of “digital nomads” (who work remotely and can move anywhere) is going to rise. COVID-19 has taught many companies that they can achieve greater efficiencies by facilitating remote work.
Accordingly, Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Julio Fuentes believes state and local business leaders ought to give new emphasis to recruiting remote workers – not just corporations – to relocate here. And Fuentes believes Florida’s school choice policies could be the key to luring education-minded parents (and their talented offspring) to our state.
Two bits of data strongly support this idea. First, research by real estate professor Bart Danielsen of North Carolina State University shows that the single greatest factor driving families’ relocation decisions is access to good education options. Second, polling data from EdChoice suggests there is considerable “pent-up demand” for wider schooling options throughout the country. In fact, roughly half of all parents say that if cost were not a factor, they would homeschool, send their child to a private school, or take advantage of some other creative arrangement (like pod learning).
Florida is in a great position to meet this pent-up demand for education choice. We already have the nation’s largest and most impressive school choice programs.
At the same time, however, our state’s crazy-quilt array of existing K-12 scholarship programs can be challenging for new parents to navigate. Which is why an effort being led by Senate President Wilton Simpson and Sen. Manny Diaz is so important.
To their great credit, President Simpson and Sen. Diaz recently unveiled a far-reaching school choice proposal that would consolidate five existing scholarship programs into two – one for students with special needs, the other for everyone else. Not only would this measure simplify our scholarship system, but it would also make it easier for parents to take advantage of many creative innovations (like micro-schooling) that have attracted great interest during the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, the Senate’s consolidation bill has attracted broad and enthusiastic public support. Agudath Israel has called the bill “monumental.” The Libre Initiative has said it would “ensure every student has access to an educational environment that best fits their unique needs and talents.” And a parade of African American “School Choice Moms” recently testified in support of the proposal at a Senate hearing. Remarkably, one of these moms credited school choice with saving her child’s life after relentless bullying over his sexual orientation at his public school left him contemplating suicide.
While the Senate proposal is indeed monumental, the upper chamber has left room for the House to improve on its ideas. One way this measure could be made even better would be to name the newly consolidated main scholarship program after legendary African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
Such a move would honor Bethune’s memory and elevate her story in the public consciousness. Moreover, a Bethune Scholarship would serve as a subtle reminder that as Florida increasingly accommodates families looking for wider options, we remain committed to giving priority to disadvantaged families, like those Bethune faithfully served – and committed to being inclusive of families desiring faith-based schools, like the one Bethune founded.
Florida’s Governor and Senate leaders are off to a great start in showcasing – and improving – our K-12 education policies. Let’s hope the House can build on their efforts and help make the Sunshine State America’s unrivaled “education destination.”
William Mattox is the director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at The James Madison Institute.