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Flexibility for public schools is the next step for school choice

OpinionFlexibility for public schools is the next step for school choice

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Although I attended Catholic school, my husband and I didn’t think twice about sending our three daughters to public school in our hometown of Naples. We trusted the system, and it repaid us. Our girls were well-prepared for college and successful careers.  

But that was 20 years ago. Public schools were different and there wasn’t much competition. Now parents want more options tailored to their children’s interests and needs. 

That’s why, last year, Florida enacted the nation’s largest universal school choice program – education savings accounts any student can use to attend a school of their choosing.

Students and parents rally at the Ohio Statehouse

Students and parents rally at the Ohio Statehouse in support of possible changes that would increase eligibility for taxpayer-funded school vouchers to K-12 students statewide on May 17, 2023, in Columbus. (AP Photo/Samantha Hendrickson)

More than 400,000 Florida families are already using these accounts for everything from private schools to homeschools to microschools to other learning environments largely free from the heavy hand of government. 

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But what about the schools that educated our daughters? What about the neighborhood schools that have served millions of Florida families and communities for generations?

Even with universal school choice, most parents still choose public schools, and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. That’s fine, and in fact, with school choice, public schools are a valid choice. Many parents like that their kids can walk to a school just down the road. Others have children with special needs who benefit from enhanced services in public schools.

There are a thousand reasons parents make this choice – but public schools are wrapped in so much red tape, they struggle to meet the unique needs of every family and community. It’s hard to compete with other learnings options that have far more freedom and flexibility to individualize their education.

Public schools are tightly controlled by distant bureaucrats who, while well-meaning, typically know little about specific communities and even less about individual students. Local school boards and parents are much closer and know far more about what works – and what doesn’t. 

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That’s why, earlier this month, the Florida Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to cut the most outdated, burdensome and inefficient red tape in public education.

To start, we’re giving schools more flexibility in hiring, like longer contracts and certification periods for our best teachers. We’re also loosening requirements for new teachers transitioning from other professions, so schools can recruit talented educators with broad experience across the workforce. 

We’re giving schools more authority over budgets, buildings and property – preserving transparency, while updating outdated and time-consuming reporting requirements. 

Local education officials are accountable to the voters who elect them. They don’t need the state to micromanage so many decisions on spending and how school property is used.

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Most importantly, we’re empowering public schools to provide more tailored support to students. We’ve created new progress monitoring and parent-approved action plans starting in pre-K, which will help struggling students much more than one-size-fits-all retention mandates. 

In high school, we’re providing flexibility for schools to find new ways to help students learn key skills, not just pass tests. End-of-course exams in English and math impact 30% of students’ grades, not their whole future. Earning a high school diploma, joining the military, or entering the workforce shouldn’t be prevented by one test. Private-school students have this freedom. Public-school students deserve it, too.

These reforms will improve competition and empower public schools to educate students for lifelong success, without rolling back one inch of accountability. In fact, we recently expanded it. 

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Last year, Florida enacted a new assessment system to measure student achievement multiple times a year and provide the right interventions as early as possible. This system will be even more helpful as we cut red tape. 

Public schools will have more freedom to fill students’ learning gaps, while spending less time on outdated and bureaucratic busywork. Cutting red tape will create the customization that benefits students while supporting teachers and parents as they work together to help children find their best path in life.

Opponents of school-choice have complained the state has too little control over alternative learning environments. Yet now that Florida has universal choice, the real problem is that the state has too much control over public schools. 

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The state doesn’t raise children. Neither do local school districts, or even private religious schools. Parents raise children, and that’s why Florida has given every family the freedom to make the choice that’s best for them. 

It’s time to give public schools the flexibility to compete with every other option – and prove they’re still a great choice.

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