Florida’s new school choice law likely to spark others

Part 125 of 124 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Parents of certain special-needs students in Florida will be able to customize their children’s education, thanks to a law signed by Gov. Rick Scott on Friday.

EXPANSION: Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the country’s second education savings account program, along with an expansion to the state’s existing tax-credit scholarship program.

The law allows certain parents access to Personalized Learning Scholarship Accounts, modeled on Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Parents receive an allotted sum in their education savings account, which they can use for private school tuition, educational therapy, private tutoring, or other educational expenses. The money rolls over year to year and can be saved for college.

Florida is the second state to have an ESA law, after Arizona, which passed its law in 2011 and has expanded it every year. To qualify, Florida students must have an Individualized Education Plan or be diagnosed with Down syndrome, autism, Spina bifida, or certain other disabilities.

Current estimates project 1,800 students served in the ESA program’s first year, with about $10,000 in scholarship money for each, East said. Students receive 90 percent of what the state would have spent on their education if they remained in public schools.

Economists have noted that ESAs can encourage education providers, like private schools and tutors, to innovate and find ways to provide the same services for lower costs. Parents may want their child to attend a private school and receive extra tutoring in math, for example. While vouchers cover the cost of tuition, ESA money is more flexible: it can pay for tuition and tutoring, but only if there’s enough ESA money for both. If two schools provide the same quality education, the school with a lower tuition would leave parents with more ESA money to spend on tutors.

School choice proponents hope Florida’s new law will prompt other states to consider ESAs. At least seven states considered similar measures this year.

“I think states are beginning to see ESAs as the way forward on school choice. I expect to see other states consider going with this innovative model,” said Lindsey Burke, Will Skillman Fellow in Education for the Heritage Foundation, in an email.

About half the country — 24 states, plus Washington, D.C. — has a private school choice program. Florida has been a school choice state for more than a decade, and this bill is another expansion to the options the state’s families have.

“I think it’s important for the other 26 (states) to know as they’re reviewing school choice (proposals) … states that have already done this are looking to do more of it, and they’re only doing more of it because it’s been so effective for families,” said Jeff Reed, communications director for Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “This is a consistent theme in states with existing programs, either expanding programs or creating new ones. They’re doing that because they’re seeing the positive impact they’re having on families and on education overall.”

The expansion of ESAs to a second state shows Americans are beginning to think differently about education, Reed said. A full day in a school building, public or private, may not be the best fit for some students.

“It’s about using the services and educators and tools that exist out there that are most appropriate for that child’s needs. If that’s a school, great. If it’s not a school, if it’s a tutor, a therapist, an online learning program — that’s what this gets to,” he said.

Arizona’s Supreme Court recently declined to hear the challenge against the state’s ESA program, effectively upholding the program and affirming its constitutionality.

That decision, combined with the experience of Arizona families and the research that’s been done on the program, bodes well for the proliferation of ESAs in other states, said Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based organization that was instrumental in designing that state’s ESA law.

“Now, we have evidence from Arizona that parents are customizing their children’s education. They are very satisfied with the program. It is in fact possible and efficient to operate an ESA program. We can check those off, and we have the court ruling,” he said. “Other states can now look at the program and say, ‘Great. How do we best shape the law for our state?’”

Arizona’s Department of Education operates the state’s ESA program, but in Florida, the program will be run by nonprofits that grant scholarships to students through the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which allows private donors to receive tax credits for donations they make toward scholarships.

“That’s a significant difference from what is done in Arizona,” Butcher said. “We have this perfect natural policy experiment unfolding, where you have one state with an agency running it, and another state with a nonprofit, a private entity running it.”

States ought to look at other states’ programs to see what works and what doesn’t, Reed said, but the best programs will vary from state to state.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all model for school choice,” he said. “It’s whatever works best for a state.”

A state’s constitution is another factor for lawmakers to consider, said Tim Keller, attorney for the Institute for Justice, a law firm that defends school choice laws in court. Arizona’s ESA program was designed after the state’s voucher program was ruled unconstitutional.

“It may very well be that in some states, ESA programs are more constitutionally viable, but in another state, the legislature might be limited to only a tax-credit program, or it might have the full school choice menu available to them,” said Keller, who helped design Arizona’s ESA law. “Generally speaking, school choice programs are viable in almost every single state in the country, and it’s just a matter of tailoring the program to satisfy the unique state constitutional provisions that you find in any given state.”

Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest (and until recently, only) scholarship-granting organization, has been working with the state’s education department to sort out the details of running the program, said Jon East, Step Up’s vice president for policy and public affairs. Step Up will receive applications, determine student eligibility, and distribute scholarship money.

The law also expands the state’s tax-credit scholarship program and requires stricter accountability practices for nonprofits like Step Up.

“This shows how school choice is adapting for the 21st century,” Reed said. “Here’s a state with more than 15 years of school choice experience, and they are taking the leap and saying, ‘We are not going to limit kids’ options to schools. We know there are tutors, therapists, online services. There are all types of tools that exist that can serve kids’ needs, and we want parents to access those.’”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.