Gov. DeSantis Should Prioritize School Choice

By Guest Author Christian Barnard and Kristiana Bolzman

Florida families are through with one-size-fits-all education.

That’s what 78 percent of Sunshine State voters said, according to a new survey from the Foundation for Excellence in Education. And recent elections tell the tale: Four years ago, Florida mothers supporting school choice cemented former Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election, and only three months ago, school-choice moms decided the gubernatorial election for Ron DeSantis.

If Gov. DeSantis wants to satisfy his supporters, he must respond to parents’ obvious demand for school choice by expanding eligibility for choice programs, with a continued focus on low-income families.

This new survey offers insight on the best way to do that, by revealing how over 800 registered Florida voters view education policy and school choice. Right now, in addition to charter schools, Florida offers three choice programs: Gardiner Scholarships (education scholarship accounts or ESAs), tax-credit scholarships, and voluntary Pre-K programs. Floridians overwhelmingly approve of these programs, with support ranging from 75 to 88 percent, and an astonishing 72 percent supporting an expansion of Florida’s ESA program.

School choice is popular in Florida because it works.

A new study released by the left-leaning Urban Institute examines college enrollment and graduation rates for over 16,000 students who used Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program—the nation’s largest private school choice program. Researchers found that students enrolled in the program are up to 43 percent more likely than their public school peers to enroll in four-year colleges, and are as much as 20 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. These benefits were more pronounced for students who began using their scholarship in elementary and middle school, further corroborating the benefits of school choice.

It also makes sense that voters want expanded education scholarship accounts. ESAs let parents direct the public funds that would have been spent on their student in the public education system toward funding education tailored to their student’s individual needs.

Currently, Florida’s ESA program is limited to students with certain disabilities, but it could be expanded to help many others. Another report from the Foundation for Excellence in Education and EdChoice found that private school leaders view the high cost of tuition as the main obstacle for families wanting to send their children to private school. As a result, Florida private schools may be operating with over 125,000 empty seats in the next few years. But an expansion of Florida’s ESA program to include low-income students could reduce the tuition barrier preventing low-income families from accessing high-quality education without overstraining existing private school capacity.

Political winds seem to be fully behind Florida’s school choice agenda—as Republicans control the House, Senate, governor’s office, and state Supreme Court. But policymakers should proceed with caution.

While Florida boasts an impressive array of educational options, some programs are more established than others. Rather than trying to immediately expand choice to all students, which would come at a high political cost in such a closely divided state, policymakers should focus on providing access to high-quality education for the thousands of low-income students waiting for choice programs.

Florida lawmakers must act wisely but boldly, taking advantage of the favorable political environment to give more families what they want: the education that is right for their children. The school-choice moms are watching—and they’ll be at the ballot box in 2020.

This article was originally published by the Orlando Sentinel.

Kristiana Bolzman is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Young Voices Contributor. She studied Politics and Journalism at Hillsdale College, graduated from The Heritage Foundation's Young Leaders program, was accepted as a Generation Liberty Fellow at the State Policy Network, and has served at Fox News and on Capitol Hill. Her research and writing focuses on education reform and the preservation of civil liberties.
Catalyst articles by Kristiana Bolzman