Florida’s ‘Schools Without Rules’: Private Schools With Big Results

Published November 28, 2017

Since being championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, and passed by the Florida Legislature in 2001, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which helps underprivileged children find schools that work for them, has experienced a series of notable highlights.

One is its steady growth to more than 100,000 scholarship students — nearly 70 percent of them black or Hispanic — attending close to 2,000 private schools. Tax-credit scholarships, which are now available in 17 states, enable qualifying families to pay tuition at participating schools of their choice, with the program funding coming from donors who receive state tax credits. The need-based FTC has become the largest school-choice program in the country.

Another highlight came one day after Martin Luther King Day in January 2016, when King’s son, Martin Luther King III, and other luminaries addressed 10,000 Floridians rallying in Tallahassee to protest lawsuits attempting to kill the FTC, brought by the state teachers union.

“This is about justice,” King declared. “This is about righteousness. This is about freedom — the freedom to choose for your family and for your child.”

Judges subsequently have batted down the union’s preposterous contention that funds raised from corporate contributions in return for tax credits are government money belonging to the public-school establishment.

Researchers have furnished additional highlights, with studies showing children who mostly had been in the lowest achievement rungs in their assigned public schools are now progressing in their families’ FTC schools of choice.

Undoubtedly, the top research highlight came Sept. 27, when the Urban Institute released a study finding students who participated in FTC for at least four years achieved a college enrollment rate 46 percent higher than nonparticipating peers from similar backgrounds. Among students who were in FTC at varied points between 2004 and 2010, there was a 15 percent college-enrollment increase.

“Our study shows that private-school choice can make a difference for disadvantaged students,” wrote Urban Institute authors Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn. “Students in the FTC program, despite coming from low-income families, enrolled in Florida public colleges at almost the same rates as the average student in Florida, regardless of income.”

Finally, an assertion by a president of the United States that your program is so amazing it ought to serve as a national school-choice model would be a highlight in many a book. But when President Donald Trump issued such an endorsement on March 3 upon visiting the FTC-participating St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, even some staunch advocates of education choice feared the Trump embrace of FTC presaged federalization of choice. Putting the federal government at the center of the school-choice movement could potentially lead to the rise of federal regulations that would stifle educational freedom, not advance it.

With regard to state regulation, the Orlando Sentinel recently published a series, provocatively entitled “Schools Without Rules,” critiquing FTC. This series appears to be a response to Trump’s endorsement of the program. As the headline suggests, the Sentinel reporters’ central finding is the state does not regulate these schools of choice sufficiently. For example, they don’t have to hire state-certified teachers; they don’t have take the same tests required of public schools (using, instead, normed tests of their choosing); and they don’t have to follow a state-prescribed curriculum.

The reality is heavy regulation would make the FTC schools very much like the public schools that families wished to leave. The schools would lose their operating independence, and thus be severely limited in providing parents the kind of instruction they want for their children. Governmental reliance on teacher-certification mills linked to insipid schools of pedagogy and a regime of excessive testing associated with Common Core-style standards has yielded no positive results that would justify forcing scholarship schools to conform.

An unintended but positive result of the Sentinel series’ pro-regulatory bias is it illustrates the far greater threat to educational freedom that federalization of private-choice programs such as the FTC would bring. Highlights such as the Urban Institute study and the “Rally in Tally” make a difference when legislative debates and decisions are being made close to the people. When an unelected bureaucrat in the U.S. Department of Education can write the rules for schools of choice, a government monopoly will have reclaimed total control.

[Originally Published at the Orlando Sentinel]