By Hera Varmah, Miami Herald, November 6, 2023
The third and final GOP primary debate is approaching, set to take place in my home state of Florida, in Miami. Many Floridians will be watching to see which candidates take a stand to empower America’s parents — a key swing vote segment in the 2024 election—through a commitment to support school choice.
School choice is popular throughout the country. It’s not just wildly popular with Republican primary voters, but also among 71% percent of all voters, across almost all demographics, according to a 2022 Real Clear Opinion Research poll.
As a student, I struggled with math and science. The school I was in did not set me up for academic success. Growing up in a household with 11 children, my parents had the choice of which school to send us to. My siblings and I would not be where we are today without that choice. Nine out of the 12 received and benefited from Florida’s tax-credit scholarships. I was able to transfer to a private school for grade school and high school, where I had teachers who cared about helping me thrive. That help ultimately got me get into college, where I received a bachelor’s degree in food science and technology from Florida A&M University.
Opponents have long argued that school choice programs will destroy public education, but Florida offers us a nearly 30-year case study for why that claim is not true. Since implementing limited school choice the 1990s, today over 400,000 students have a choice between their zoned public school, a private school paid for by a state-funded scholarship, or one of more than 650 charter schools in the state. Some students have the option to transfer to a public school outside of their district or enroll in the Florida Virtual School. Throughout this time, the public education system has also improved.
In 1999, Florida’s students were testing well below average on the NAEP, a national standardized test for public schools. However, since the inception of school choice, Florida ranks in the top 10 on the four core tests of the NAEP. The Sunshine State also ranks second in the nation for the number of students who successfully pass its college-level Advanced Placement exams, and graduation rates are up by nearly 35% since 1999, with Florida placing third for K-12 achievement, according to EdWeek.
Florida has a tried-and-true case study for the efficacy of school choice programs. When the government provides parents more alternatives, it breaks the stranglehold of special interest unions and puts pressure on public schools to do better.
School choice programs have also been shown to break down the barriers to higher education that students from a lower-income background typically face. Students who received a Florida Tax Credit scholarship, for instance, were 15% more likely to attend college than students in public schools, according to the Urban Institute.
Florida shows the way that candidates on stage in Miami would be wise to follow. They should commit to prioritizing school choice via the Educational Choice for Children Act (ECCA), a federal bill that would help up to 2 million students access a school or education service of their parents’ choice. Not every student is blessed to have the choices I had, and this bill would expand options to students who desperately need it.
The ECCA would fund scholarships with private donations, and donors would receive a federal tax credit. Students could use scholarships for tuition, tutoring to address learning loss, special needs services, education technology, and more. The bill would triple the number of students benefiting from private school choice programs, and it would complement the programs already in effect in 31 states, while creating new opportunities in states without school choice. The legislation has more than 100 House co-sponsors and more than two dozen Senate co-sponsors.
Read the full op-ed by Hera Varmah via the Miami Herald here.