Denisha Merriweather: Black families in Florida all in for education choice
Image via Lance Rothstein.

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The days of just accepting the zoned school are over.

A funny thing happened over the past 20 years while critics were condemning education choice in Florida as a right-wing plot: Hundreds of thousands of Black families flocked to embrace it.

Then another funny thing happened: Not only did the expansion of options and opportunity improve academic outcomes for Black students in Florida choice schools, but the competition also improved outcomes for Black students who remained in district schools.

All of this should be common knowledge – and cause for celebration. Yet the great migration of Black families to choice schools in Florida is a story that remains oddly overlooked.

A new report that my colleagues and I put together seeks to change that. “Controlling the Narrative: Parental Choice, Black Empowerment & Lessons from Florida” is a joint effort between Black Minds Matter, the American Federation for Children, and Step Up For Students. It seeks to inform a wide range of audiences, from policymakers to the press to the general public, about Florida’s increasingly choice-driven education system and how it has helped Black families and educators.

Many of those audiences are outside of Florida, where many states have yet to embrace choice – and where millions of Black students continue to be trapped in schools that aren’t working for them. But “Controlling the Narrative” is also aimed at folks in Florida – to parents, teachers, lawmakers and others who need to see the reality behind the anti-choice smokescreens.

Among the report’s takeaways:

Black parents want options. In the 2020-21 school year, 112,662 Black students in Florida – about 1 in 6 – were enrolled in non-district options that did not exist a generation ago, including charter schools, private schools via state scholarships, and home education using state-funded education savings accounts. That’s up from 1 in 12 Black students a decade ago.

Better outcomes in choice schools. Black students in Florida charter schools outperform their counterparts in Florida district schools, according to state and federal test data. Meanwhile, academic data for Florida’s main private school choice program, while not broken down by race, shows participants enrolling in college and earning degrees at significantly higher rates than like students in district schools.

Better outcomes in district schools. In the 1990s, the percentage of Black students in Florida scoring at proficient or above was in the single digits on all four reading and math tests that make up the core of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. On all four, Black students in Florida lagged Black students in nearly every other state. Today, that situation is nearly reversed, with Black students in Florida among the national leaders in three of the four.

Black educators benefit, too. Thousands of Black teachers are teaching in non-district choice options that did not exist in Florida 10 or 20 years ago, and a growing number are founding and/or leading their own schools. In one state senate district, there are now 26 Black-owned private schools.

To be sure, it’s impossible to tease out exactly how much education choice has contributed to the rising academic trend lines. But quality research shows competition from choice does lift all boats. A 2020 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found as Florida’s largest private school choice program grew, district schools saw higher test scores, fewer suspensions and lower absenteeism.

This isn’t to suggest we’ve arrived. Black students still have miles to go. Black fourth graders in Florida may now be No. 1 in math among Black students in America, but only 28% are proficient.

At the same time, the best available evidence shows Black families are using their power to find schools that better serve their children – and, in the process, driving quality throughout the system.

This isn’t a fad. The growing numbers of Black parents enrolling their children in Florida choice programs are making it increasingly dicey for politicians to ignore them. This year, 12 of 21 state House districts represented by Black lawmakers, and all six state Senate districts, have more than 2,000 students each using the state’s two main private school choice scholarships.

Black families in Florida aren’t just going to give up programs that are helping their children. It’s been a long journey, but the days of just accepting the zoned school are over.

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Denisha Merriweather is founder of Black Minds Matter; director of public relations and content marketing at American Federation for Children; a member of the board of directors for Step Up For Students; and a former recipient of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Guest Author


2 comments

  • Alex

    December 9, 2021 at 12:46 pm

    Uh oh.

    The racist right isn’t going to want blacks to get the same vouchers/funding as they do, unless they’re Candice Owens kids.

  • Tom

    December 11, 2021 at 4:22 am

    This program choice was instrumental in electing Gov Desantis. He pledged school choice expansion in 2018, especially towards all minorities. His opponent was a pawn to the anti school board union leadership. Gillium opposed parental expansion and school choice opportunity.

    America’s Governor received 18% of the African American vote, along with 44% of the Hispanic vote. As the the African American school choice moms on education choice was the driver. Over 100,000 moms voted for Gov Ron vs Gillium.

    Gov Ron pledged and expanded this school choice program, including children with disabilities with legislative expansion support in 2021. Access was greatly expanded as promised.

    America’s Governor is a leader on this program.

Comments are closed.


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