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Expand Student Learning Options in Florida | William Mattox

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Expand Student Learning Options in Florida | William Mattox

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Expand Student Learning Options in Florida
Wednesday, January 23, 2013 — William Mattox

Imagine you’re watching your favorite football team try to stage a furious comeback against a relentless opponent.  At a critical moment late in the game, you’re convinced your head coach ought to call a running play to get a first down.  Yet, inexplicably, the quarterback drops back to pass instead.  You exclaim, “What in the world is he doing?”  Then, the quarterback completes the pass.  For a touchdown.  To win the game.

Now, if you’re a true fan of the team, you cheer deliriously – and admit you’re glad the head coach had a better plan than yours.  But if you’re a school union official, watching Florida students fighting to overcome a long battle against mediocrity and failure, you go away grousing that the governor didn’t run the plays you wanted him to run.  Even though the students you supposedly root for just experienced remarkable success.

This tale captures Florida’s education story over the last decade.  Our state, which once lagged behind most states in student achievement, staged an incredible turnaround in the first decade of the 21st Century (yet you’d hardly know it from listening to many grousers and complainers).
   
Still, the evidence is hard to ignore – which explains why the Sunshine State ranks Number 6 in the country in the just-released rankings by Education Week.  And why Florida received the top grade in StudentsFirst’s 2013 national report card.

While Florida’s success should be a source of state pride, now is not the time for the Sunshine State to rest on its laurels or to revert back to running the education establishment’s unimaginative plays (“Just spend more!”).  Indeed, any new spending on education needs to be directed toward rewarding teachers who have distinguished themselves in the classroom, equipping students with the digital resources they need to succeed, and addressing funding inequities that hinder the spread of nontraditional schooling options.

In addition, Florida policymakers ought to:

-- Eliminate ‘old school’ barriers to online learning.  Some school districts run virtual schools that require online learners to take digital courses on school premises, during the school day, in accordance with the traditional school calendar, and from digital providers that enjoy “home district preferences.”  These “old school” regulations thwart the “any time, any place, any path, any pace” advantages of online learning.  Florida policymakers ought to get rid of them.

-- End discrimination against students who’ve never been enrolled in a public school.  Under current law, middle and high school students who want to take a digital course – and special needs students interested in using a McKay Scholarship at a private school – are only eligible if they have been enrolled in a public school at some point.  These policies do not serve each child’s best interest.  In the 21st Century, we can and should “customize” each child’s educational plan to meet his or her unique learning needs.  Policies that discriminate against certain options should be eliminated. 

-- Give those trapped in poorly performing schools a ‘parent trigger.’  In California (and a growing number of states) parents whose kids are trapped in poorly performing district schools can opt to transform their local school into a charter school.  State Rep. Michael Bileca believes Florida ought to join this list of states.  He is absolutely right.

-- Adopt Education Savings Accounts.  First adopted by Arizona, Education Savings Accounts put 90 percent of each child’s per-pupil funds in an account managed by the child’s parents (with parameters set by the state to ensure accountability).  Parents can then opt to use these funds for a wide array of purposes, including school tuition, online learning programs, textbooks, curriculum, private tutoring, and/or contributions to a qualified college savings plan. ESAs allow policymakers to expand learning options while avoiding tricky church-state issues.  They make it easier for students to receive high-quality instruction from multiple sources.  And because funds can be used for many purposes, including even college savings, ESAs give parents an incentive to seek the highest possible quality for the lowest possible price. 

Over the last decade, market-based reforms in Florida’s educational system have helped catapult our state into a position of national leadership.  To maintain our edge, and to serve Florida’s students in the best possible way, policymakers need to expand learning options for all students this year.     

William Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute and a columnist for Florida Voices. He can be reached at bmattox@jamesmadison.org.

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