Twenty years ago I had the privilege of signing the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Bill and today over a million Florida students have received scholarships to attend the school of their choice. Over the years, I have met many of these students, each of whom is a story of hope and represents one of the greatest public policy achievements of our time.
Although it was not the first school choice program (Wisconsin came first), it is the largest in the country and it has done the most to spur the school choice movement to the nationwide.
This revolution has had its detractors, of course. Even today, after decades of success, programs here in Florida and across the country face lawsuits and political opposition from entrenched interests. These are the same vested interests that worked to block and sue to keep schools closed when evidence and science said it was safe.
The choice of school paves the way for success
The choice of school was successful nonetheless, and we must keep these four lessons in mind as we shape the future of education:
First of all, Florida had a big idea: to put students at the center of the system.
Every parent knows their child is unique, especially parents with more than one child. This individuality is a blessing, but the unique model of most public schools does not honor individuality. Giving students choice has empowered them to get the type of education that works best for them, regardless of postcode, race, ethnicity, ability, level of learning, style of education, ‘learning or whatever.
Second, we have been daring, and we have continued to become more daring. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program started statewide. And with our success, we have continued to raise the bar. This year alone, Governor Ron DeSantis, President Chris Sprowls, President of the Senate Wilton Simpson, Senator Manny Diaz, and Choice supporters in the Florida Legislature have massively expanded and improved school choice programs, and 13 States across the country have created new choice programs this year – paving the way for more than one million students to have more personalized learning options. There is always more to do when it comes to improving educational opportunities. And that’s what parents want too.
Third, results are visible to everyone and individual results matter to each student.
Students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program were more likely to go to college, more likely to graduate, and Urban Institute research found a positive correlation between the education of students and the duration of use of the program.
Fourth, our policies help those who need it most. Among all the pupils who have benefited from the choice of school are pupils from disadvantaged households or from households where English is not spoken at home. These children often face most of the challenges and yet are stuck in schools that do not meet their needs. When these students were given a choice, they effectively closed the performance gap with their peers. Today Florida can say that every student, regardless of background, has an equal chance to learn and graduate.
Education: The COVID pandemic has given us a roadmap to transform education for the better
As our country emerges from the greatest disruption to our education system in modern history, we see even more opportunities ahead. Governors and political leaders across the country are adopting new policies designed to help every student succeed. This includes robust new school choice programs, new literacy programs aimed at ensuring every student can read, expanding access to academic and career pathways for high school students, and bridging the digital divide.
Respond to individual needs and levels
These student-centered policies work because they focus on the needs of individuals. Government bureaucracies cannot focus on individual students because it is just not in their nature. Such large and impersonal systems target the average, teach it, achieve it and, if necessary, push each student to live in it.
We’ve proven the opposite – that if you focus on each student, refuse to settle in, keep raising expectations, show your results, and build broad coalitions for change, you will succeed and the children will win.
Archer Kaléa:My school forced me to take a special education. Now I go to college.
Florida has become a leader in improving student outcomes because of its commitment to helping children get the education they deserve and want. Keeping that focus turned out to be the most important difference to over 1 million Florida students and their families. They’ve accomplished great things – attending college, starting a career, giving back to their community. Some are now teachers themselves. And it’s a legacy worth fighting to grow, not just in Florida, but nationally.
Jeb Bush is the 43rd Governor of Florida and Founder and Chairman of ExcelinEd. Follow him on Twitter: @jebbush
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: It’s Time for a National School Choice Policy to Serve American Youth