A recent study of the rhetorical intensity of school choice debates by Harvard-educated researcher Jason Bedrick confirms Taylor Swift’s lyrical observation that “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
Bedrick found that any legislative attempt to expand education options to needy families routinely comes under blistering attack, even if the proposed school choice expansion is actually quite modest.
What’s more, two new Florida stories show that school choice programs can face egregious attacks even in a year when there’s no legislative effort to expand scholarships at all.
Last week, school district officials in Leon and Hillsborough counties publicly complained that they are going to have less money to spend than they had hoped. And they pinned the blame on their favorite scapegoat — school choice scholarship programs that give needy families the opportunity to choose from an array of learning options, including schools not controlled by the districts.
The Leon and Hillsborough officials’ complaints appear to be a pre-emptive dodge to deflect taxpayer attention away from the fact that their districts failed to qualify for a $200 million pot of K-12 “school recognition“ money. This performance bonus funding could have been theirs had they complied with state law forbidding mask mandates in schools.
Rather than acknowledging the financial impact of their defiance, the Leon and Hillsborough officials chose instead to rail against school choice scholarships, invoking the tired old canard that these highly popular programs threaten to “dismantle” public education.
Apparently, these officials believe per-pupil money should not follow the pupil to whatever school the pupil attends. Instead, they think taxpayers should fund systems, not students. And they want the system to determine where students are educated — not parents.
Thankfully, our state’s education leaders have been working steadily to eliminate “systemic privilege” in K-12 education. Over the last quarter-century, they have carefully (and cautiously) expanded school choice programs. And Florida students of every kind — including those educated in district schools — have benefited greatly.
This year, our state’s education leaders decided to hit “pause” on school choice expansion, preferring instead to give primary attention to growing parental concerns about curricular content in public-school classrooms.
But this did not stop school district officials from accusing education choice programs of hurting their bottom line — even as they cashed big fat checks for “COVID relief.” In fact, Leon County received $60 million in federal COVID-19 funding — more than five times the amount spent on school choice scholarships for Leon students. And even without these COVID-19 monies, the impact of scholarships is less than 3% of the total Leon school budget.
So, there isn’t a problem here — unless one believes school districts should be paid for students not enrolled in their system. And it is folly for school officials to argue that a family that enrolls its kindergarten child in a Montessori school is “taking money from the public school system.”
That’s like saying a family that freely chooses to send packages via UPS is somehow taking away money that rightfully belongs to the U.S. Postal Service.
What’s more, the standard Family Empowerment Scholarship amount is roughly half the $14,000 Leon County Schools spend per pupil. So, taxpayers are clearly benefiting from education choice, right along with Florida families and students.
The unfair criticism now being levied against school choice scholarship programs is disappointing. Even if it could have been predicted by Bedrick’s scholarly research and by Swift’s famous lyric. Still, there is an important lesson in all of this for Florida policymakers contemplating school choice scholarship expansion in next year’s legislative session:
If you are going to be damned if you do and damned if you don’t, you probably ought to put your foot back on the accelerator and bring education choice to the thousands of Florida families that still need more options for their children.
William Mattox is the director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at the James Madison Institute.