J. Rober⁠t⁠ McClure: Cr⁠i⁠⁠t⁠⁠i⁠cs bl⁠i⁠nded ⁠t⁠o school cho⁠i⁠ce benef⁠i⁠⁠t⁠s

By: Dr. J. Robert McClure / 2017



U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos often touts Florida as a model for the kind of bold school choice-expanding policy innovations the rest of the country needs. That is in large part because during Jeb Bush’s two terms as governor, Florida distinguished itself as a national leader in advancing a number of far-reaching education reforms.

But if Florida’s 2017 legislative session is any indication, even some of the milder efforts to offer more learning options to students around the country will be met with unhinged, over-the-top, hyperbolic opposition from the education establishment. Witness what happened in the Sunshine State leading up to the governor signing a forward-thinking education reform measure that will help children in struggling schools.

The current focal point of “school choice derangement syndrome” in Florida is an omnibus education bill that cobbles together several smaller measures around the central theme of expanding students’ learning options. Most of these smaller measures passed the state House or Senate with — get this — majority support from both Democrats and Republicans.

And it’s easy to see why: These measures call for relatively small expansions of Florida’s current scholarship programs for special-needs and low-income students, and for granting access to online courses to all K-12 students — including those who have never been enrolled in a public school.

Nevertheless, when these modest measures were packaged with an equally modest charter school initiative called “schools of hope,” the education establishment went apoplectic. They whipped up a major campaign to flood the Capitol with phone calls and emails urging Florida Gov. Rick Scott to veto the entire education package.

The Florida education establishment did all it could to stop the omnibus education bill. To advance their case, they trotted out all sorts of curious arguments. For example, one advocate editorialized that expanding school choice would undermine property values for those living in “good” school districts.

By this logic, any effort to significantly improve the schools in poorly performing districts would have this detrimental effect because it would expand the number of neighborhoods in which living would be desirable. The reality is that the opportunity to improve the desirability of more and more neighborhoods is why many of the most forward-thinking progressives are now embracing school choice as a way to stimulate urban renewal.

Thankfully the Florida House, led by Speaker Richard Corcoran, remained resolute in championing the Schools of Hope initiative, which will invite high-performing charter schools with a proven track record of success to open new campuses near chronically-failing public schools. And despite the flood of ginned-up opposition, Gov. Scott refused to turn his back on students trapped in woefully underperforming schools.

There is a lesson for progressives across the nation to learn from Florida’s fight: It would be better in the long run to join with families who seek alternatives to the status quo than it is to continue defending the entrenched forces behind the existing education establishment.

But there is also a lesson here for those around the country who have already seen the light on school choice. It is this: If the education establishment is going to treat even modest moves to expand learning options as a life-or-death cage match, it no doubt pays to “go big or go home.” If they’re going to fight you no matter what, you may as well go for the best outcome possible.

Unfortunately, school choice derangement syndrome isn’t going to go away until parents enjoy the full range of learning options Secretary DeVos has championed. And the sooner we can get to that day, the better off our nation’s schoolchildren will be.

— J. Robert McClure is president and CEO of The James Madison Institute, a statewide think tank based in Tallahassee devoted to research and education on public policy issues.