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Florida’s new school choice law likely to spark others

By   /   June 23, 2014  /   No Comments

Part 125 of 126 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Parents of certain special-needs students in Florida will be able to customize their children’s education, thanks to a law signed by Gov. Rick Scott on Friday.

EXPANSION: Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the country's second education savings account program, along with an expansion to the state's existing tax-credit scholarship program.

EXPANSION: Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the country’s second education savings account program, along with an expansion to the state’s existing tax-credit scholarship program.

The law allows certain parents access to Personalized Learning Scholarship Accounts, modeled on Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Parents receive an allotted sum in their education savings account, which they can use for private school tuition, educational therapy, private tutoring, or other educational expenses. The money rolls over year to year and can be saved for college.

Florida is the second state to have an ESA law, after Arizona, which passed its law in 2011 and has expanded it every year. To qualify, Florida students must have an Individualized Education Plan or be diagnosed with Down syndrome, autism, Spina bifida, or certain other disabilities.

Current estimates project 1,800 students served in the ESA program’s first year, with about $10,000 in scholarship money for each, East said. Students receive 90 percent of what the state would have spent on their education if they remained in public schools.

Economists have noted that ESAs can encourage education providers, like private schools and tutors, to innovate and find ways to provide the same services for lower costs. Parents may want their child to attend a private school and receive extra tutoring in math, for example. While vouchers cover the cost of tuition, ESA money is more flexible: it can pay for tuition and tutoring, but only if there’s enough ESA money for both. If two schools provide the same quality education, the school with a lower tuition would leave parents with more ESA money to spend on tutors.

School choice proponents hope Florida’s new law will prompt other states to consider ESAs. At least seven states considered similar measures this year.

“I think states are beginning to see ESAs as the way forward on school choice. I expect to see other states consider going with this innovative model,” said Lindsey Burke, Will Skillman Fellow in Education for the Heritage Foundation, in an email.

About half the country — 24 states, plus Washington, D.C. — has a private school choice program. Florida has been a school choice state for more than a decade, and this bill is another expansion to the options the state’s families have.

“I think it’s important for the other 26 (states) to know as they’re reviewing school choice (proposals) … states that have already done this are looking to do more of it, and they’re only doing more of it because it’s been so effective for families,” said Jeff Reed, communications director for Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “This is a consistent theme in states with existing programs, either expanding programs or creating new ones. They’re doing that because they’re seeing the positive impact they’re having on families and on education overall.”

The expansion of ESAs to a second state shows Americans are beginning to think differently about education, Reed said. A full day in a school building, public or private, may not be the best fit for some students.

“It’s about using the services and educators and tools that exist out there that are most appropriate for that child’s needs. If that’s a school, great. If it’s not a school, if it’s a tutor, a therapist, an online learning program — that’s what this gets to,” he said.

Arizona’s Supreme Court recently declined to hear the challenge against the state’s ESA program, effectively upholding the program and affirming its constitutionality.

That decision, combined with the experience of Arizona families and the research that’s been done on the program, bodes well for the proliferation of ESAs in other states, said Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based organization that was instrumental in designing that state’s ESA law.

“Now, we have evidence from Arizona that parents are customizing their children’s education. They are very satisfied with the program. It is in fact possible and efficient to operate an ESA program. We can check those off, and we have the court ruling,” he said. “Other states can now look at the program and say, ‘Great. How do we best shape the law for our state?’”

Arizona’s Department of Education operates the state’s ESA program, but in Florida, the program will be run by nonprofits that grant scholarships to students through the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which allows private donors to receive tax credits for donations they make toward scholarships.

“That’s a significant difference from what is done in Arizona,” Butcher said. “We have this perfect natural policy experiment unfolding, where you have one state with an agency running it, and another state with a nonprofit, a private entity running it.”

States ought to look at other states’ programs to see what works and what doesn’t, Reed said, but the best programs will vary from state to state.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all model for school choice,” he said. “It’s whatever works best for a state.”

A state’s constitution is another factor for lawmakers to consider, said Tim Keller, attorney for the Institute for Justice, a law firm that defends school choice laws in court. Arizona’s ESA program was designed after the state’s voucher program was ruled unconstitutional.

“It may very well be that in some states, ESA programs are more constitutionally viable, but in another state, the legislature might be limited to only a tax-credit program, or it might have the full school choice menu available to them,” said Keller, who helped design Arizona’s ESA law. “Generally speaking, school choice programs are viable in almost every single state in the country, and it’s just a matter of tailoring the program to satisfy the unique state constitutional provisions that you find in any given state.”

Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest (and until recently, only) scholarship-granting organization, has been working with the state’s education department to sort out the details of running the program, said Jon East, Step Up’s vice president for policy and public affairs. Step Up will receive applications, determine student eligibility, and distribute scholarship money.

The law also expands the state’s tax-credit scholarship program and requires stricter accountability practices for nonprofits like Step Up.

“This shows how school choice is adapting for the 21st century,” Reed said. “Here’s a state with more than 15 years of school choice experience, and they are taking the leap and saying, ‘We are not going to limit kids’ options to schools. We know there are tutors, therapists, online services. There are all types of tools that exist that can serve kids’ needs, and we want parents to access those.’”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

Part of 126 in the series Educating America
  1. Arizona mom won’t give up on special needs kids, no matter what state says
  2. Reviving a 1970s lawsuit, DOJ would keep black students in failing schools
  3. Relocating sexually abusive teachers would be more difficult under Pennsylvania bill
  4. DOJ backpedals on Louisiana voucher lawsuit
  5. Court says charter schools won’t pay for Atlanta’s pension debts
  6. Biggest education impact from shutdown? Furloughed bureaucrats
  7. Appeals court upholds Arizona school choice program
  8. Indiana’s voucher program expands; diversity a factor in one family’s choice of school
  9. ‘Vouchers don’t do much good for students’ claim is false
  10. NYC mayor’s race could affect school choice
  11. Vermont public school goes independent, raises ire from state bureaucracy
  12. Arizona education savings accounts aren’t vouchers, study says
  13. Legal institute fights Alabama union’s attempt to repeal school tax credit
  14. Experts: School choice improves education in public schools
  15. SC school-choice program helps special needs kids, could expand
  16. DOJ wants Louisiana parents out of voucher lawsuit
  17. U.S. House passes bill to prevent ‘passing the trash’
  18. ‘Non-traditional’ journalists barred from viewing tax-funded test results early
  19. New center hopes to help charter schools help kids with special needs
  20. Charter school advocate to Philadelphia schools: Listen to parents
  21. $45 million not enough for Philadelphia teachers’ union
  22. Study: Rhode Islanders support school choice
  23. Study: Choice would help failing Chicago schools
  24. Scholarships could lift SC school dedicated to real-life, hands-on learning
  25. Parents make good school choices, study says
  26. Divisive charter school reform bill headed toward vote in PA
  27. In Louisiana school voucher lawsuit, DOJ changes gears
  28. Opponents sue Washington to overturn charter school law
  29. School choice proponents’ challenge? Educating parents
  30. Judge: Federal oversight may not hamper school voucher program
  31. PA lawmakers push to amend tight teacher furlough policies
  32. College ready: A Milwaukee inner-city school success story
  33. Proposed economic furloughs could slay sacred cow of seniority in Pennsylvania schools
  34. What is Massachusetts doing right?
  35. Goldwater to appeal Louisiana school voucher decision
  36. Want to end poverty? Educate the kids
  37. Breakdown in Philly schools not only about the money
  38. North Carolina scholarship program on firm legal footing, attorney argues
  39. Philadelphia school district threatens charters
  40. Belief in student ability key to success at Milwaukee charter school
  41. Three things to know about Philadelphia’s school budget: Debt, pensions and safety
  42. Choosing to sue: Here’s a look at some 2013 lawsuits involving school choice
  43. Philly charter schools outperform district counterparts
  44. California students sue state over ineffective teachers
  45. Study: Public supports parent choice in education
  46. Under new management, Philly Renaissance Schools show growth
  47. New Orleans tops school choice index
  48. AZ to consider four school-choice expansion bills
  49. Florida family ‘blessed’ to be apart of scholarship program
  50. PA lawmakers put education at top of agenda in election year
  51. Louisiana: Feds ‘more interested in skin color than … education’
  52. Charter school for Philadelphia foster children will not be renewed
  53. Governor ties proposed PA education funding to targeted grants
  54. WA’s first charter school serves children, families of ‘extreme poverty’
  55. Vermont attempts to take independence from independent schools
  56. Philly stumbles on way to simplifying enrollment system
  57. Plan for Philly schools keeps charters in check
  58. Missouri ballot initiative would increase funding for public, private schools
  59. New York charter school focuses on family, community
  60. NC school vouchers on hold
  61. WI voucher bill would help special needs students denied open enrollment
  62. Philadelphia schools will end another year in red
  63. PA universities expect state, students to pick up tab on rising tuition
  64. Two ESA bills get House support in AZ
  65. Thousands rally to support New York charter schools
  66. California’s defense begins in Vergara trial
  67. Accountability or overregulation? Charter supporters split over Minnesota bill
  68. PA considers empowering universities to authorize charter schools
  69. Bill would make Florida students eligible for scholarships
  70. To test or not to test? Florida school choice proponents split
  71. Philly school district broke, but the pay is good
  72. Philadelphia charter school sues public school district
  73. Colorado Supreme Court to hear school voucher case
  74. Vermont to reconsider education funding formula
  75. Arizona Supreme Court allows school choice program to stand
  76. Massachusetts charter school bill revived
  77. Quality schools matter more than racial integration, black leaders say
  78. FL again takes up school-choice bill
  79. Choice Media’s videocast tackles host of education issues
  80. Ending teacher seniority rules beyond Philly requires legislative action
  81. New website helps Detroit parents choose schools
  82. Philly schools caught on funding merry-go-round
  83. Louisiana bill would coordinate school choice programs
  84. New D.C. charter school lottery eases but doesn’t eliminate waiting lists
  85. Federal bill attempts to help replicate high-quality state charter schools
  86. Philadelphia schools awaiting taxes from city, state
  87. ACLU alleges discrimination in 138 NJ districts
  88. MN anti-bullying bill could have unintended consequences
  89. Mississippi’s special needs bill to return next year
  90. Illinois considers three-year ban on virtual charter schools
  91. Violent Philly high school source of worry
  92. Auditors examining troubled Philadelphia school district
  93. Civil liberties organization sues to overturn anti-bullying law
  94. Legal conflict over teacher seniority in Philly heats up
  95. Academics, culture help mom choose private school
  96. PA cyber charter schools could be funded by state, not districts
  97. Arizona expands school choice program
  98. The sticky statistic of statewide charter school performance in PA
  99. Louisiana offers new vocational technical program
  100. Benefits are driving high personnel costs in Philadelphia schools
  101. Educators look to grow with expanding Hispanic demographic
  102. Philadelphia flexes muscle over charter schools
  103. Philly school district facing another bleak budget
  104. Andre Agassi dedicates Indianapolis charter school
  105. For PA and neighboring states, school spending and graduation rates don’t add up
  106. At long last, PA school buses could be getting a boost
  107. Arizona charter schools need funding fix, proponents say
  108. Progress reports for Philadelphia schools show uneven achievement
  109. Teachers union opposes ‘Bad Teachers’
  110. Governor’s plans to boost education funding falls short
  111. Georgia’s school-choice program draws legal challenge
  112. Missouri parents want more choice in education
  113. U.S. lawmakers to consider charter school bill
  114. Florida’s school choice expansion awaits governor’s signature
  115. PA charter schools may see drop in funding with new special education formula
  116. In Nevada, your child’s school records could cost $10K
  117. AG, lawmakers propose similar updates to PA charter school rules
  118. NC school voucher program gets temporary green light
  119. Philly school district’s lack of transparency frustrates families
  120. Bullying motivates many parents to home-school, attorney says
  121. Philadelphia City Council gambles to fund schools
  122. PA Supreme Court pushes forward charter school’s lawsuit against Philly
  123. Feds consider joining school choice game
  124. Florida’s new school choice law likely to spark others
  125. California teacher reform lawsuit sparks copycat, more likely to come
  126. School choice is popular — when parents know about it
  127. What can private schools learn from charters?

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Mary C. Tillotson is a national education reporter for Watchdog.org. She has reported for School Reform News, published by the Heartland Institute, and The St. Ignace News in northern Michigan. Contact Mary at mtillotson@watchdog.org.