Florida school choice—great, but could be better

The redefinED blog has put together its annual calculation of Florida students that take advantage of the state’s many public education alternatives. These include district choice programs such as magnet schools, open enrollment, and International Baccalaureate, as well as charter schools and the Florida Virtual School. Jon East, a former editorial writer at the Tampa Bay Times, relied largely on state Department of Education surveys required of Florida’s sixty-seven school districts to help determine that, in 2011-12, 43 percent of students in Florida public education opted for something other than their zoned school.

With a minor exception, only local school boards are allowed to authorize charter schools in Florida.

Not surprisingly, the state scored high on the Center for Education Reform’s newly released Parent Power Index, which aims to show parents in one state how much power they have over their children’s education compared with those in other states. School choice is a big part of that measurement (teacher quality and transparency are others). Florida landed in second place—1 percentage point on the index behind Indiana. The center remarked, “[Florida] ranks consistently in the top ten for its charter laws. [It] also has been a leader in providing educational options for children with broad school choice programs.”

But one factor in particular stands out that may help explain why the Sunshine State, which does well to accommodate the demand for school choice, couldn’t finish at the top of a parent power measurement: With a minor exception, only local school boards are allowed to authorize charter schools, and the center correctly notes that many districts have grown antagonistic toward charters (especially when lawmakers try to erase the inequity in funding between districts and charters). Wisconsin is the only other state among the top ten on the index that allows just schools boards to authorize charters, but even there the law makes an exception for Milwaukee.

Florida used to have a stronger law that once allowed an independent state commission to authorize charters, but a state appeals court in 2008 determined that the commission was unconstitutional; the judges ruled that it infringed on the control of local school boards. Florida state universities can authorize lab schools, but enrollment at these schools constituted just 5 percent of the state’s total charter enrollment of 178,892 in 2011-12. Charter applicants largely have just one option, and that option, in major school systems, ranges from those highly interested in charters (Hillsborough County, home to Tampa) to hyper-critical (Duval County, home to Jacksonville).

The Center for Education Reform asserts that a renewed state commission and a university authorizer would strengthen Florida’s charter law. For lawmakers to take this seriously—and the GOP-led legislature, does, indeed, take charters seriously—then they’ll likely have to turn to voters, just as Georgia lawmakers have asked citizens to revive an independent state charter commission that the Georgia Supreme Court last year ruled unconstitutional.

As well they should. The growth of high-quality charter schools in Florida should no longer depend on the whims of an elected school board. And this matters to more than just Florida residents; the state’s school reforms—from vouchers to teacher evaluations—have been modeled in other states year after year. But on charter authorizing, the state remains behind.

As the redefinED blog noted, the charter sector grew by 16 percent last year, which is not surprising; the sector has seen double-digit percentage growth each year for the last several years. But that collective growth masks wildly different trends between major Florida districts. Miami-Dade County, for instance, has doubled its charter school population in the last several years to nearly 41,000 students, which is 12 percent of all of the county’s 345,000 public school pupils. On the other hand, the number of charter school students in Duval County, Florida’s sixth-largest district at 123,000 students, also has doubled in the last several years, but they number just 3,900 students—just 3 percent of Duval’s public school enrollment. (Duval is also where the school board chairman told a Jacksonville radio interviewer two years ago, “Fundamentally, [school choice] is very bothersome.”)

It’s imperative that policymakers make room for more authorizers committed to bringing in more high-quality providers, especially when recalcitrant school boards are the only option. When they do, when it comes to school choices, Florida will be trailing no one.

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