Florida’s public schools can’t compete with private schools without a level playing field

by | Sep 16, 2023

At kitchen tables across the Sunshine State, between bites of hastily prepared breakfasts or dinners, more and more Florida parents are discussing the idea of changing the place where their kids will sharpen their pencils and their minds. With a massive expansion of school choice vouchers already on the books, and with many families already taking advantage of Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship program, those numbers will likely only grow in the coming school years.

Critics, particularly Democrats and Democrat support groups like the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, predicted doom for public schools. But what the numbers actually show is that while tens of thousands of parents have embraced the voucher program, so far, at least, enrollment in those programs hasn’t exploded in the way that Democrats feared. The newest data shows a significant number of new voucher recipients were already in private education, though a meaningful portion also transitioned from public schools. Far from causing a public school “exodus,” the voucher program seems to be catering to a diverse set of needs and financial backgrounds – exactly as it was intended.

Moreover, with financial reserves still in place, the program appears sustainable for now, allowing both public and private school systems to coexist and compete. As noted by the organization Step Up for Students, there’s no immediate indication that the state will need to dip into extra funds set aside for public and private school enrollments.

But the question remains: As Florida continues to lead the nation in school choice options, how will the state reconcile these with the traditional, neighborhood public schools that have long served its communities? As Florida prepares for its 2024 legislative session, the balancing act between public and private education options will no doubt continue to evolve, shaping the state’s educational landscape for years to come.

Conservatives argue that competition often drives improvement. Therefore, the thinking goes, public schools, which have traditionally held a near-monopoly on mass education, will be motivated to innovate and improve their offerings in order to retain students. The need to match the efficiency, specialized curricula, and extracurricular opportunities provided by private institutions could fast-track reforms that might have otherwise taken years to implement.

But that competitiveness won’t come with robust support from state leaders, a point that Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo makes clear in an exclusive op-ed, here. Among her points: Republicans can’t just turn away from public schools and hope that forcing them to “compete” with private schools will make them automatically better. Public schools are still the primary education vector in Florida, and with the state’s growing population, they will need both budgetary and regulatory support.

To Passidomo’s credit, she and other state lawmakers have been actively working toward regulatory reforms to level the playing field between public and private institutions. Among them: simplifying the process to get a 5-year temporary teaching certificate and offering more flexibility in facility costs for new construction. But Passidomo is also looking for other ways to alleviate some of the bureaucratic burdens that public schools face. By cutting red tape, public schools will have more autonomy to adapt and innovate, just like their private counterparts.

Still, not everyone is ready to throw caution to the wind on Florida’s embrace of free-market education and the ensuing competition.

The state’s largest teacher’s union, for example, remains skeptical for a myriad of reasons, noting that not only will public schools have to compete for voucher dollars, but also for teaching talent. And even though the state’s teacher shortage isn’t nearly as bad as the teacher’s union claims, Florida schools are still facing difficult challenges to hire qualified teachers for specific subjects. Providing adequate funding so that public schools can hire teachers of the same caliber as private schools is one of the biggest challenges.

Maintaining teacher quality needs to be at the top of the list of legislative priorities for Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the next legislative session. While Republicans say their moves to “cut red tape” will address those hiring shortages and make it easier to hire teachers in general, some experts warn that Florida’s push to lower the bar for hiring teachers might actually be worse than the problem they are trying to cure.

“We appreciate state education leaders working to address teacher vacancies and other challenges, but when leaders take shortcuts on teacher quality it costs everybody: taxpayers, the teachers themselves, and especially students,” warns Lane Wright, spokesman for the National Council on Teacher Quality, and a former spokesman for Florida Governor Rick Scott.

“Lowering the bar for getting teachers into the classroom is a broad-brush approach that will ultimately do more harm than good through higher teacher attrition and less effective instruction for our students,” Wright says. “Teacher shortages tend to persist in specific subject areas like math and science, or in specific types of schools, like those in rural, or high-poverty areas. We encourage Florida leaders to collect and analyze their teacher workforce data so they can create policies that target their specific needs.”

In the lead-up to Florida’s 2024 legislative session, education stands as one of the most contentious and nuanced policy areas under scrutiny. At the heart of this debate is the recent expansion of the state’s school voucher program. While parents are warming up to the flexibility offered by such programs, lawmakers are sensitive to the competitive disadvantage that this could spell for public schools. A closer look reveals a complex landscape where public opinion, policy details, and legislative intent coalesce to redefine Florida’s educational future.

Florida, of course, isn’t alone in embracing school choice. While many blue states are sticking to traditional public schooling, a large number of red states are charting their own path.

But in Florida, at least, while GOP lawmakers, bolstered with support from Governor Ron DeSantis, have pushed the education envelope in the last several years, they are also keenly aware that the vitality of public schools must not be compromised in the quest for educational flexibility. As Passidomo points out, it’s evident that the goal of recent legislation isn’t just to empower parents but also to revitalize the state’s backbone of education: public schools.


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