When writing the 2021 Legislative Session history, one issue sure to get the lion’s share of positive recognition is school choice.
From the start, school choice has been a high-profile topic, and the result this year is almost certain to back up the hype.
But this expansive bill, of course, does more than just that.
One feature that’s easy to miss — expanding scholarship access to more students — will go a long way to help families, especially those hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and their schools that are working hard to deliver quality education to all students.
Much of the appeal of these private schools is that they are better suited to serve students who, for one reason or another, haven’t (or wouldn’t) fit in as well in public school settings. Some of these children have special physical or intellectual needs, while others adhere to cultural or religious practices that aren’t — and really can’t be — the focus of public schools.
And for many of these students, the private school choice has better fostered their ability to learn.
In many distinct communities — whether based on faith, ethnicity, nationality or something else — there is tremendous meaning attached to private schools reflecting those cultures.
One example is private day schools that serve Jewish communities. About 50 of these schools are around Florida, serving close to 10,500 students, 40% receiving income-based or special needs scholarships.
Teach Florida, the organization advocating for these schools, says Jewish day schools are committed to educating students regardless of family income.
In addition to the students who receive state scholarships, thousands more receive scholarships through private donors to the schools.
This school year, these Jewish day schools safely operated with 90% in-person education during even the worst days of the pandemic. The scholarship programs allowed families struggling through the pandemic to keep their children in their chosen schools while lessening those school’s financial shortfalls.
Misguided critics of school choice programs have long lamented that they as taking away from traditional public schools.
But in reality, Florida continues to prioritize traditional public education with annual increases in per-student spending. This includes a proposed $500 million to support last year’s teacher salary increases.
Sponsoring this year’s school choice bill in the House is Palm Bay Republican Rep. Randy Fine, who recently summed up the need for the bill, which consolidates multiple scholarship programs into a more manageable number: “We’ve created a complexity for parents that’s simply unnecessary. This reduces the complexity without taking away any choice. The same options that are available today will continue to be available in the future.”
Special recognition should also go to Senate sponsor Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah for making sure the scholarship programs and the schools that use them remain financially healthy, which in turn elevates the quality of the education they provide.
The Jewish day school community is a direct beneficiary of the arduous work from the bill’s sponsors and Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Wilton Simpson, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls. They all made this legislation a priority, continuing Florida’s reputation as a national leader in school choice.
Florida proves that choice can be a meaningful, effective, and important part of a comprehensive education system, including public and private schools.
This proper and timely legislation will be the legacy of Florida’s 2021 Session. And lawmakers working to simplify and improve the system and its institutions will also be well-remembered.
School choice legislation of 2021 will keep children’s interests front and center, ensuring the best opportunity for all to thrive and succeed through quality education.