When I was in seventh grade, I took the SAT and scored well. Well enough to receive an invitation from a private college in Virginia that had a program for students interested in skipping four years of traditional high school for an accelerated collegiate program at the end of which I would have both my high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree. I was fairly unhappy in seventh grade, but my circumstances were not exceptional. I suffered from the same mediocre learning environment that plagues many public school students across the country. However, it was enough for my parents to seriously reconsider moving out of Florida. After overhearing many conversations about job fairs and house hunting, I decided I wanted a full high school experience so I would have more time to learn and develop my interests. My parents offered to pay for private schooling at our church, an opportunity I was well aware most kids would never have, but I wanted a secular education free of uniforms and chapel. Homeschooling wasn’t an option because both of my parents made a living as public school teachers themselves. So I went to the high school I was zoned for, and overall, I enjoyed my time there and look back with fond memories, though I was rarely intellectually challenged. Yet, I still wonder sometimes how different my life would be if I had chosen to move away.
I do not share my very generic story as an example of another tragedy that has come out of the public school system. Instead, I wish to contrast my experience growing up with the current picture I see in my state in which many new educational opportunities abound. Today, my sister is in a dual enrollment program at the local university, whereas only one student was involved in this program when I was in high school. Tellingly, he ended up being valedictorian. She commutes there every day and at the end of next year, and she will graduate high school with a good amount of college credit under her belt as well as experience with a university setting. Four tuition free public charter schools are eligible to open in my hometown this year and two more were recently approved. One, Mason Classical Academy, is being spearheaded by one of my former high school teachers. The school is based on the Hillsdale Model used at a charter school in Hillsdale, Michigan and plans to employ classical teaching methods. Online education has also taken off, and today, Florida Virtual School course enrollments easily exceed 100,000 more than any other state.
More options have resulted in greater success. As William Mattox recently said in a school choice policy brief by the James Madison Institute, “Our state, which once trailed most other states according to various measures of student achievement, staged an incredible turnaround in the ﬁrst decade of the 21st Century.” A 2012 study found that Sunshine State fourth grade students scored higher in reading than students in 48 of the 52 educational systems tested across the world, keeping pace with students in Finland and Hong Kong. Equally significant, Florida’s low-income and minority students outscored the international average on the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) test.
Mattox argues, and I am in agreement, that much of Florida’s success can be attributed to the rise in high quality alternative educational methods and opportunities, which help students of all backgrounds and abilities. For example, digital education in Florida is ranked third in the nation and Florida Virtual School Students (46% are minority students) had a higher passing rate than the state average on 11 of 15 Advanced Placement tests.
A 2012 study by David Figlio of Northwestern University found that low-income students able to attend private school due to Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program have made significant learning gains where they had previously fared poorly in conventional public schools. Lest anyone wonders whether the scholarship program picks and chooses the highest-performing low-income students, Figlio found that the program tends to attract “the weakest prior performers on standardized tests” and the correlation “is becoming stronger over time.”
Special needs children have benefitted from the McKay scholarship program which allows them to attend private schools. These scholarships have contributed to Florida’s first place ranking in the country for combined math and reading gains among special needs students. Likewise, Florida charter schools have made greater annual learning gains (in 79 of 96 categories) than traditional public schools and have a higher percentage of students performing at or above grade level on standardized tests (in 50 of 54 categories). Charter schools have also done better than conventional schools have in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students (in 16 of 18 categories).
Students who remain at conventional public schools see indirect benefits from school choice as well. Economist Tim Sass found that traditional public schools in competition with charter schools saw bigger gains in students’ math scores than conventional schools that lacked charter school competition.
So, as Mattox says, a rising tide has been lifting all boats. Most encouraging is the fact that these positive changes have been led by bold policy reforms. While libertarians often throw up their hands when it comes to dealing with politicians and prefer to work outside of the system, education reform usually requires extensive compromise and coordination. Fortunately, many policy makers in Florida are open to school choice. There is certainly much more work to be done. Achieving high national rankings on standardized tests is a low bar and no state should settle there, but it’s a promising start. I for one, am greatly encouraged by the fact that students in my hometown today have many more and varied educational opportunities than I did just ten years ago.