More than 20 years ago, Florida adopted an A+ Plan for K-12 Education, under the leadership of Gov. Jeb Bush. This ambitious initiative, which included Florida’s first K-12 scholarship program, proved to be an extraordinary success. It helped establish Florida as a national leader in student outcomes.
And it inspired many other states to adopt similar reforms.
While the impact of that original A+ Plan has been incredibly far-reaching, some Florida families have yet to benefit directly from school choice — or to benefit fully from all that a skillfully-crafted education choice policy could bring.
— Some students remain ineligible for scholarships, even though their parents pay taxes and the state will fund their education if they attend a public school.
— Some families have education choices only in theory. They qualify for scholarships, but this doesn’t have much practical benefit because current vouchers can only be used for school tuition — and they live in a sparsely-populated area that does not have any alternative schools.
— Some scholarship recipients living in disadvantaged communities continue to suffer from what Harvard scholar Raj Chetty calls a dearth of “positive neighborhood effects.” For these students, the primary challenge isn’t access to meaningful school choice — it is overcoming the residual effects of assigned school policies on neighborhood composition.
Thus, a New A+ Plan is needed — and it should be designed to provide universal coverage for all students, real choices for families that lack them, and new opportunities for those living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Specifically, Florida’s New A+ Plan for K-12 Education should offer flexible-use scholarships to all Florida families (that’s the A) with weighted funding for special populations, including those living in Title I neighborhoods that need revitalization (that’s the Plus).
Such a policy would be especially well-suited for today’s post-COVID “new normal,” in which many parents are exploring new ways to educate their children. Indeed, scholar Kerry McDonald reports that small, highly-personalized learning communities — such as micro-schools, learning pods and hybrid home-schools — continue to draw considerable interest from young families.
This interest in “micro” education offers promise to sparsely populated areas in particular. “In many smaller communities, the absence of good K-12 schooling options is a major problem,” reports real estate professor Bart Danielsen of North Carolina State University. “It not only hinders economic development and job growth, but it also adversely affects things like rural hospitals’ ability to attract and retain good doctors.”
Danielsen says household migration studies show that “families prefer to live in locations where school choice programs are offered, and they will move to these places” as circumstances allow. Perhaps the best example of this comes from rural Vermont, where families with school-aged children often opt to live in “tuitioning districts” (offering school choice scholarships) over districts with assigned public schools.
Danielsen’s research points to an often-overlooked benefit of school choice — it can help localities attract and/or retain upwardly-mobile residents that significantly contribute to the life of the community. And the long-term effects of such policies could be even more powerful if state policymakers were to make scholarship programs more flexible.
Indeed, universal Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) allow families to patch together educational offerings from multiple providers (including online courses and highly innovative immersive technology programs) rather than relying on a single school to meet all their child’s learning needs. As such, ESAs are particularly beneficial to families in geographic areas that lack (large) school options.
“School choice programs can improve communities and spark economic vitality,” Danielsen says. And when scholarships become available to all families everywhere, “enhanced benefits” should be offered to families living in lower-income neighborhoods needing revitalization.
Weighted scholarships of this kind could be provided easily by transforming the federal government’s Title I education assistance program into one that funds students rather than school systems. And it would be fitting for weighted funds to come from the Title I program since many of the low-income neighborhoods we see today were adversely affected by the federal government’s “redlining” policies from the mid-20th century.
More than two decades ago, Florida’s original A+ Plan for Education started our state down the school choice path. A New A+ Plan for Florida Education would enable us to reach our destination — providing scholarship eligibility to all students, while retaining our state’s special concern for families facing difficult circumstances.
William Mattox is the director of the Marshall Center for Educational Options at The James Madison Institute and the author of a new JMI report, from which this op-ed is taken.