Parents should have choice in education

Published February 19, 2011

A vast majority of Tennesseans believe their public school system needs changing, as found by a recent Vanderbilt University poll. Thankfully, state leaders don’t have to play a guessing game to determine which reforms would best serve Tennessee’s children.

The overwhelming success of a nearby state has the educational record to prove changes need not be rooted in uncertainty. Since 1998, Florida’s student body, particularly minority, low-income and special-needs children, has made impressive gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ (NAEP) fourth-grade reading test. Performance on that particular test is critical, for in students’ early years they are learning to read; in their later years, students read to learn.

Over the past decade, all Tennessee students, on average, improved five points (to 217 from 212) on NAEP’s fourth-grade reading exam. By comparison, all Florida students improved 20 points (to 226 from 206) — the equivalent of two grade levels. Florida is now outperforming Tennessee by nearly one grade level even though it started with lower scores. Even more significant, from 1998-2009, Florida’s Hispanic students improved to 223 from 198 on the exam, meaning they are outperforming all Tennessee students by half a grade level. There’s more. In 1998, Florida’s low-income students trailed all Tennessee students by 22 points — more than two grade levels. Today, those groups are tied academically. Also in 1998, Florida’s African-American students were seven points behind their Tennessee peers. In 2009, Florida’s African-American students surged ahead of Tennessee’s by 14 points.

Importantly, such gains are not limited to reading. In the Report Card on American Education, Florida ranked third for its low-income students’ performance and progress on NAEP’s fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math exams. How did Florida do it? Its formula for success was twofold: Strong leadership and aggressive reforms that introduced accountability and incentives into public schools and greater parental choice for students in need of education outside traditional public schools. Specifically, Florida increased school accountability by creating truth in advertising.

Often school performance labels are hard to understand. Florida changed that by grading its public schools A, B, C, D, or F, which parents can easily interpret. Florida banned social promotion; i.e., the policy of moving illiterate students up grade levels. State leaders raised academic standards and rewarded teachers for improving student achievement. Florida implemented a tax credit scholarship program, which currently is allowing 28,000 low-income students to attend the private schools of their parents’ choice.

Lawmakers also created the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, which gives vouchers to more than 21,000 students with special needs to attend private schools. Additionally, charter schools and virtual learning expanded during Florida’s decade of reform, further widening educational opportunities for residents. These reforms taken collectively are making Florida a leader in providing learning environments tailored to their needs. Other states are catching on to Florida’s story; so should Tennessee. Last year, Oklahoma improved its charter school law and passed a scholarship program for students with special needs.

As research of Florida’s special-needs scholarship program has proved, participating parents will be more satisfied and students will be safer and better off. Tennessee families who desire more personalized, high-quality learning opportunities for their children can look to Florida’s reforms to ensure a culture of academic success. Their record against Tennessee proves it