Florida Education Official Touts School Choice, Competition

Published March 20, 2006

Florida’s top school choice official, Virginia Gentles, addressed a group of school choice advocates in Chicago on March 16, 2006 at the Metropolitan Club in the Sears Tower, describing the many school choice programs available to parents in the Sunshine State, how those programs have affected K-12 education in Florida, and how more choice would benefit students and parents in Illinois.

Gentles, executive director of the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, was invited to speak in Chicago as part of the 2006 Educational Choice Speaker Series hosted by the Illinois School Choice Initiative.

“In Florida,” said Gentles, “school choice serves two very clear principles: #1, making education about the student, not the system; and #2, empowering parents to make the best decisions for their children.”

Florida has a wide range of school choice programs, explained Gentles, with each program serving different groups of students. For example, the Opportunity Scholarships Program permits some 700 children in failing schools to transfer to better schools; McKay scholarships enable almost 17,000 children with disabilities to transfer to schools that serve them better; scholarships derived from corporate tax credits help another 15,000 children from low-income families transfer to private schools; children who need a different learning environment can choose from more than 300 charter schools; and additional options are provided by virtual schools and home schools.

Gentles cited Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s comments about the importance of school choice from his March 7 State of the State address to the legislature. Bush said: “We are committed to school choice because equal opportunity starts with equal options for education, and the competition of choice drives positive change in our public schools.”

According to Gentles, scholarly research supports Bush’s statement. A recent Harvard University study, for example, showed the incentives and accountability in the Opportunity Scholarships Program produced larger achievement gains than those in the No Child Left Behind program.

“Simply giving the students the power to choose is enough to make the schools work harder to serve them,” said Gentles. “It’s not just the students that are going to the private schools or going to the charter schools that are benefitting, it’s also the students in the public schools that take a look at the threat of the students leaving and get inspired to improve.”

Gentles noted Illinois has a cap on charter school expansion, while Florida does not. She pointed out that while both states passed their charter laws in 1996, Florida now has more than 300 charter schools, while Illinois has only about a tenth of that number. Gentles also said a tax credit scholarship program, similar to those introduced in Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, would likely be welcomed by parents in Illinois. Her final piece of advice to Illinois school choice advocates was to do as Florida had done and focus different school choice programs on different groups of students.

“Opening [school choice] up to everybody sometimes can be a bit daunting,” Gentles said.

Gentles oversees Florida’s voucher programs as well as charter and virtual schools and home education. She is the former program director for Children First: School Choice Trust, Canada’s first privately funded voucher program. Gentles also has been involved in education policy at the federal level as a legislative assistant and budget analyst in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Previous speakers in the monthly series were Ken Johnson, elected board president of the Milwaukee Public Schools, and George Clowes, senior fellow with The Heartland Institute. Audio versions of their presentations are available from the Web site of The Heartland Institute at http://www.heartland.org.

On April 20, the Illinois School Choice Initiative will host Lawrence C. Patrick III, president and CEO of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

The Illinois School Choice Initiative is a grassroots project of The Heartland Institute, a 22-year-old nonprofit research and education organization based in Chicago. The mission of the initiative is to lay the groundwork for a successful school choice campaign in Illinois. For more information, please visit Heartland’s Web site at http://www.heartland.org or contact Phylicia Lyons, the initiative’s executive director, at 312/377-4000, email [email protected].