Legg: With Nearly Half of Florida Students Now Exercising School Choice, Distinctions Between ‘Private’ and ‘Public’ Matter Less Than Customization
Florida is expanding its range of private school options for public education, including a new scholarship specifically designed for elementary children who struggle with reading. This new "reading scholarship account" offers a fresh approach to educational choice.
Surprisingly, this scholarship is actually for students who attend public schools. It targets students in grades 3-5 who perform poorly on the state reading test and, in some cases, have been held back a grade. The scholarship provides $500 per year and can be used for various educational resources such as tutoring, afterschool and summer programs, curriculum, and instructional materials. The initial funding for this scholarship is $9.7 million, which will benefit 19,400 students. However, the pool of eligible students is likely to be ten times larger.
The driving force behind this scholarship is Michael Bileca, Chairman of the House Education Committee and a Miami-Dade Republican. This initiative is reminiscent of the free tutoring programs introduced under the federal No Child Left Behind Act by bipartisan education advocates. It is based on the educational principle that children need to learn how to read in order to acquire knowledge through reading.
What sets this scholarship apart is that Bileca chose not to allocate more funds to district elementary reading budgets. When questioned about his decision to provide parents with the choice of how to spend the scholarship, he emphasized the influential role parents play in their child’s life. His main point is that parents should have more control over their child’s education, which aligns with the core principle of educational choice. This scholarship, more than any other, highlights the expansive dimensions of this belief. The ongoing national debate on choice tends to focus on the strict divide between public and private schools, but this distinction is becoming less relevant.
In Florida, 46% of pre-K-12 students (1.7 million) opt for something other than their assigned school based on their residence. Nearly half of these students choose special academic magnet and choice schools run by public school districts, such as International Baccalaureate or career academies. Many students also participate in dual enrollment programs that earn them college credits alongside their high school diploma, or take online courses to supplement their in-class learning.
Charter schools are the choice for one-fifth of these students. Being public schools operated by private members of the community, these schools provide unique and innovative curriculum tailored to meet individual student needs in areas such as arts, technology, special needs, classical education, or STEM subjects. Charter schools often have lengthy waiting lists that can far exceed their capacity.
Florida also offers private school opportunities through four scholarships that served 273,000 students last year. Surprisingly, the largest voucher program is for 4-year-olds, with 80% of pre-kindergarten students selecting a private school. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the average household income for 107,000 students on the financial-need scholarship is only 8% above the poverty line. The Gardiner Scholarship, which supports over 10,000 students with special needs such as autism, enjoys bipartisan support among state lawmakers.
Another choice program introduced this year is the Hope Scholarship, which provides an alternative for students who have experienced bullying at their public schools. Although most of the attention has been on the Hope Scholarship, some criticisms seem unfounded. While the scholarship does not directly target bullying prevention, it does offer additional options for the victims, which aligns with ongoing efforts to combat bullying.
Florida is undoubtedly leading the nation in terms of school options; however, these laws only laid the groundwork. None of these schools or programs would remain open without parents actively choosing them for their children. The significant growth in enrollment numbers and waiting lists clearly indicates that parents prioritize finding schools that cater to their child’s individual needs. The emphasis is less on whether a school is public or private, and more on whether it can provide a personalized educational experience.
John Legg, former State Senator and Senate Education Committee Chairman, is the founder of Dayspring Academy in Pasco County. He also serves on the board of directors of Step Up for Students, a non-profit organization that helps administer four state scholarship programs in Florida.
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