Florida Aims for One in Five Students Attending Choice Schools

Published October 31, 2012

Florida’s Department of Education wants to double K-12 enrollment in charter and voucher schools from 9 percent of students to 17 percent in the next six years, according to its strategic plan released in October.

“These are really ambitious goals by the Board of Education, which are really consistent with our own projections, our own ambitions,” said Jon East, a vice president of the tax-credit scholarship nonprofit Step Up for Students.

Through open enrollment, special-needs vouchers, charter schools, and tax-credit scholarships, 43 percent of Florida students attend schools of choice, according to state data SUFS collected.

“The way that the [tax-credit scholarship] statute is set up there’s a lot of potential for growth to meet that demand,” said Mike Kooi, executive director of the FDOE’s office of school choice. “I think those numbers will be met.… We’ve seen incredible growth, not only in the participation, but the interest in the program.”

SUFS primarily runs Florida’s tax-credit scholarships, which allow poor students to attend private schools using scholarships funded by tax-deductible donations. More than 40,000 students received one in 2011-2012, almost twice as many as in 2008-2009. Florida law allows the program to increase participation approximately 25 percent in any year demand meets the lost tax revenue and enrollment caps.

“We certainly think that the interest of low-income families [is adequate] to reach the 100,000 mark,” East said.

Bursting the Seams
Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarship lets special-education students attend private schools using tax dollars. It has also grown, but not as quickly as charter attendance and tax-credit scholarships: 24,194 students enrolled in the McKay program in 2011-2012, 4,342 more than in 2008-2009.

“The numbers of children being diagnosed with a disability are slowly going down in Florida,” Kooi said. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.… You want to try to educate kids in a normal setting.”

The number of charter schools has grown from five in 1996 to 577 in 2012.

“Last year we had almost 180,000 students in charter schools,” East said. “There’s a very robust charter environment within Florida, so it seems as though there’s only one way for that to go, and that’s up.”

Voucher Possibilities
In 2006, the state Supreme Court struck down a voucher program for students attending failing public schools, ruling vouchers violate the state constitution’s requirement of a “uniform” public school system. In November, voters did not approve a measure to let state funds enter religiously affiliated institutions.

“Contrary to what opponents say, this amendment isn’t about vouchers,” said Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Florida’s Future. The amendment would affect Floridians’ ability to receive social services from private and parochial providers, she said.

“The uniformity clause … is obviously not uniform in quality of education,” said Bob Sanchez, a policy director for the James Madison Institute. “The uniformity was in the fact that the school boards ran things. This wouldn’t necessarily free the state to have more school voucher programs.”

Growth in Online Education
One impediment to Florida school choice is school boards that try to prevent competitors from starting local charter schools, Sanchez said.

“The areas of growth will probably be in charter schools and online education,” Sanchez said. “In Florida we allow hybridization,… so it’s a choice-friendly environment and the choices are multiplying, especially in digital education.”

What ultimately will determine a program’s popularity are the families that choose it, Kooi said.

“The biggest thing is the demand of parents for choice, of parents that want an environment that meets the needs of their individual child,” Kooi said.


Image by International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.