Orlando Sen⁠t⁠⁠i⁠nel: School cho⁠i⁠ce g⁠i⁠ves Flor⁠i⁠da a leg up on qual⁠i⁠⁠t⁠y

By: The James Madison Institute / January 30, 2014


January 30, 2014

January 30, 2014|By William Mattox, Guest columnist
Battles over public education often remind me of those once-popular “less filling” versus “tastes great” Miller Lite commercials. Because in education debates, we are often given a false choice between “higher quality” and “affordable costs.”In reality, it’s possible to achieve both. And a recent study in Education Next (a Harvard-published journal) suggests that Florida leaders ought to remind people of this frequently. Because Florida delivers higher quality in K-12 education at a lower cost than any other state in the nation.

And it isn’t even very close.
The researchers looked at student learning gains by state over the past two decades, as measured by student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They then compared these student learning gains to increases in state education spending over this same time period.Remarkably, Florida had the lowest increases in per-pupil spending of all 50 states; yet Florida ranked among the highest in student learning gains. In fact, the only states that had learning gains comparable to Florida — Delaware, Maryland and Massachusetts — all had per-pupil spending increases at least three times as great as those found in the Sunshine State.At a certain level, these outcomes should surprise no one. In any well-functioning market, consumers will always seek out the best possible goods or services for the lowest possible price. And producers will seek to satisfy these demands by continuously looking for new ways to offer better bang-for-buck than their competitors. This is why, for example, today’s smartphones and laptop computers cost less — yet do far more — than they did 10 years ago.Of course, K-12 education in America is anything but a well-functioning market. In most states, it is a government monopoly.Florida, however, is different. Thanks to a panoply of innovative school-choice programs — including private-school scholarships for low-income and special-needs students — parents in Florida now enjoy greater educational options than parents in any other state.And this panoply of learning options means that students in Florida are more likely than students elsewhere to be educated in a setting that is well-suited to their unique needs, interests, gifts and learning styles.Put another way, Florida’s educational system is now more diverse than other states’ — many of which are still stuck in a “one-size-fits-all” mode of doing school. And since students learn in different ways and at different paces, our state’s diverse array of learning options quite naturally helps a diverse array of Florida students.Yet, interestingly, Florida’s innovative school-choice programs aren’t just directly benefiting the students who take advantage of them; they’re also indirectly benefiting students who attend their local public school (like my son). That’s because competition rewards excellence. It spurs individuals and institutions to perform better.We see this principle illustrated all the time at sporting events like the Super Bowl. But we can also see this principle at work in the performance of schools.For example, a recent Manhattan Institute study found that learning gains for special-needs students in the Sunshine State rose markedly after the adoption of Florida’s McKay scholarships. Apparently, the fact that parents of special-needs kids had options beyond their local district school spurred better performance, not just among the students who took their McKay scholarships to a private school, but also among those who remained in public schools.So, higher quality at less cost? Florida is delivering that. Thanks to market-based education reforms, Florida is now the iPhone of K-12 education in America.
Yet, rather than resting on our laurels, we ought to be expanding education choice to more and more Florida students so that we can continue to lead the country in delivering student learning gains at highly reasonable (and sustainable) costs.For the more that education in Florida functions like a market — with funds that follow the student — the more the Sunshine State will offer what every state should seek to offer: the highest possible quality at the most affordable cost.That’s a message all Floridians ought to remember as we consider Gov. Rick Scott’s new education budget. And it’s a message that seems especially fitting for the National School Choice Week celebrations taking place around the country this week.William Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute, a public-policy research organization based in Tallahassee.