In Oakland, Calif., on March 30, 2021. (Photo: Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
Twenty years ago, I had the privilege of signing the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship bill into law and today, more than a million Florida students have received scholarships to attend a school of their choice. Over the years, I’ve met many of these students, each of whom is a story of hope and represent one of the greatest public policy successes of our time.
While thiswasn’t the first school choice program (Wisconsin came first), it is the nation’s largest and has done the most to spur the school choice movement nationwide.
This revolution had its critics, naturally. Even today, after decades of success, programs here in Florida and across the country face lawsuits and political opposition from entrenched interests. These are the same special interests who have worked to block and sue to keep schools closed when evidence and science said it was safe.
School choice paves way to success
School choice succeeded nevertheless, and we should keep these four lessons in mind as we shape the future of education:
First, Florida had a big idea – to put students at the center of the system.
Every parent knows their child is unique, especially parents with more than one child. That individuality is a blessing, but the one-size-fits-all model of most public schools doesn’t honor individuality. Giving students a choice gave them the power to get the kind of education that worked best for them – regardless of their ZIP code, race, ethnicity, abilities, learning level, learning style or anything else.
Second, we were bold, and we kept getting bolder. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program started statewide. And with our success, we kept raising the bar. Just this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Speaker Chris Sprowls, Senate President Wilton Simpson, Sen. Manny Diaz and choice supporters in the Florida Legislature massively expanded and improved school choice programs, and 13 states across the country created new choice programs this year – paving the way for more than a million students to have more personalized learning options. There is always more to do when it comes to improving educational opportunities. And it’s alsowhat parents want.
Third, the results are there for all to see, and individual results matter for individual students.
Students using Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program were more likely to go to college, more likely to graduate, and research from the Urban Institute found positive correlation between a students education and the longer they were using the program.
Fourth, our policies help those who need it most. Among all the students who have been benefitting from school choice are students from disadvantaged households or from households where English isn’t spoken at home. These children often face the most challenges and yet are stuck in schools that are failing to meet their needs. When these students have been given a choice, they have effectively closed the performance gap with their peers. Today, Florida can say that every student, regardless of their background, has an equal opportunity to learn and graduate.
Education: The COVID pandemic has given us a road map to transform education for the better
As our country emerges from the biggest disruption to our education system in modern history, we see even more opportunity ahead. Governors and policy leaders across the country are adopting new policies designed to help every student succeed. This includes new robust school choice programs, new literacy programs aimed at ensuring every student can read, expanding access to college and career pathways for high school students, and closing the digital divide.
Meeting individual needs and levels
These student-centric policies work because they focus on the needs of individuals. Government bureaucracies cannot focus on individual students because it’s simply not in its nature. Such large, impersonal systems aim for the average, and teach to it, manage to it, and, if necessary, drive every student to live within it.
We proved the opposite – that if you focus on every student, refuse to settle, keep raising expectations, show your results, and build broad coalitions for change, you’ll succeed and kids will win.
Kalea Archer:My school forced me into special education. Now, I am going to college.
Florida became a leader in rising student achievement because it focused on helping kids receive the education they deserved and wanted. Keeping that focus turned out to be the difference that mattered most to more than one million Florida students and their families. They have gone on to great things – attending college, starting careers, giving back to their communities. Some are now teachers themselves. And that is a legacy worth fighting to expand, not just in Florida, but nationally.
Jeb Bush is the 43rd governor of Florida and founder and chairman of ExcelinEd. Follow him on Twitter: @jebbush
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