Florida continues to churn out a conservative policy agenda as Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed the most significant expansion of school choice into law. The bill signed into law creates an ESA program that allows families to enroll in educational savings accounts for school-related costs. Florida already has a form of school choice, but this goes further and gives students more access to the education that suits them regardless of income level.
Governor Ron DeSantis touted the specifics of the law by saying, “There will be a preference for low- and middle-income families, but at the end of the day we fundamentally believe the money should follow the student, and it should be directed based on what the parent thinks is the most appropriate education program for their child.”
Republicans and Democrats support this law which originated in the House (HB-1) and allows all Florida families with school-age children to sign up for the ESA program. Beforehand, only 70% of families could enroll in a scholarship or ESA program. As a result, almost 3 million K-12 Floridian students have the right to choose the best education.
Florida has recently turned from a battleground state to a deep red state, but even before then, its state legislatures have produced conservative educational reform. Governor Jeb Bush signed into law the first school voucher program called the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allowed students from failing public schools money to go towards a private school of their choice. In 1999, the McKay Scholarship Program was created for students with special needs, and the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program benefited students living under the poverty level in 2001.
Governor Ron DeSantis praised this new law in a press release saying, “Florida is number one when it comes to education freedom and education choice, and today’s bill signing represents the largest expansion of education choice in the history of these United States.”
The founder of Black Minds Matter, Denisha Allen, is a product of Florida’s school choice system and released a statement saying, “As a former recipient of the Florida tax-credit scholarship, I am so pleased that the Florida Legislature once again has done what is right by families. This new expansion will provide every student in the state access to the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program. …”
The new law takes effect on July 1st. Despite the bi-partisan praise, many liberal groups are using this opportunity to criticize the law, saying it diverts taxpayer money away from public schools and lets corporate-run schools become unaccountable. This claim has no factual basis in reality. For example, a 2020 economics study on the Florida Tax Scholarship found positive benefits from increased competition between public and private schools. Standardized test scores were higher, and absences and student misbehavior decreased. However, under Florida’s new law, private and parochial schools must still follow state standards and a set criterion. Standardized testing will still occur, and teachers will report grades to parents.
The data in Florida shows positive results as well. Black students who attend private schools outperform those who attend public in 31 out of 38 categories. Even though black people vote heavily Democratic, most support school choice, like every other demographic. DeSantis also said, “Fact of the matter is our school districts perform better because they’ve embraced choice,” and they perform better because they compete for “individual students.”
In the aftermath of COVID-19, support for school choice has increased dramatically. A survey in 2022 from Real Clear Opinion Research found that close to 3/4ths of Americans and 72% of voters support school choice. On ideological grounds, 82% of Republicans supported it, along with 68% of Democrats. The lockdown’s positive effect was that parents could view what their kids were learning and take more of an active role in what schools were teaching.
Florida is now a laboratory for conservative policy under Governor DeSantis. His enactment of school choice has states like Arkansas, Arizona, Utah, and Iowa following in that direction. Florida’s school choice law will remain popular because Americans like options in a free society, and parents need a say in how their kids learn.
Alex Adkins is a graduate of Benedictine University in political science. He has written for the Washington Examiner, American Thinker, American Spectator, and The Federalist. You can follow him on Twitter @Zylinger.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.