This opinion editorial orginally ran in Context Florida on February 18, 2016.
Gov. Rick Scott has long positioned Florida as a formidable foe to Texas when it comes to job creation. For years, he has pushed his “jobs, jobs, jobs” agenda by holding up the Lone Star State as a model for Florida to emulate.
But a new measure making its way through the Legislature should help keep Florida well ahead of Texas in an equally important set of rankings: K-12 student performance. And given the importance of a skilled labor force to economic development, this legislation probably bodes well for the state’s long-term prospects in the job-creation rankings, too.
The “open enrollment” legislation would treat student-athletes in Florida high schools as students first. Rather than penalizing those who transfer to another school by making them sit out a sports season, the measure would allow student-athletes to take advantage of better opportunities at another school — even if those opportunities are outside the classroom.
To be sure, for some high schoolers, the primary appeal of transferring out of their district-assigned school is sports-related. These student-athletes want to improve their chances of landing a college scholarship by going to a school where their playing time and recruiting exposure may be greater.
But for other transfer students, academic considerations are paramount. And even though “open-enrollment” policies can hurt the competitive balance of some high school sports leagues, they often raise the competitive quality of student performance in the classroom.
That, at least, appears to be one of the lessons from Florida’s experience with school choice over the last two decades.
Prior to the sweeping education reforms championed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida was in the bottom third of national rankings for student progress and achievement. But now, thanks in no small part to choice-expanding reforms, Florida routinely finishes among the nation’s Top Ten in overall student performance. Moreover, Florida’s Hispanic and African-American students now regularly outperform their counterparts in most other states — and even outperform the general student population in a dozen or so states.
Interestingly, while Florida has distinguished itself as a national leader in offering education options to students, Texas has been stuck in the rut of resisting some choice-expanding reforms. For example, Florida now has several programs — the McKay, Gardiner, and Tax Credit Scholarships — that allow disadvantaged and special needs students to attend a private school of their choice. Texas has no comparable programs. None.
Not surprisingly, Texas placed 18th — eight slots behind Florida — in the most recent student performance rankings compiled by the American Legislative Exchange Council. And education scholar (and University of Texas grad) Matt Ladner partly attributes Texas’ failure to follow Florida’s reforms to three familiar words . . . Friday Night Lights.
That’s right, concern for the local football team’s ability to keep its top talent has often hindered many otherwise-sensible Texans from embracing school choice. And this, in turn, has meant that one-size-fits-all Texas schools have often failed to keep pace with schools in states like Florida that now must “raise their game” in the classroom to stay ahead of K-12 academic competitors.
By adopting open enrollment and penalty-free transfers for student-athletes, lawmakers are helping to ensure that Florida’s impressive K-12 student performance continues. Put another way, these legislators are helping to ensure that Scott continues to have plenty to brag about when he confronts the “everything-is-bigger” mentality of tall Texans.