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This is Not Your Father’s School Choice Plan

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

The Florida legislature passed the nation’s second account based choice program, known as the Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. The measure now sits on Florida Governor Rick Scott’s desk.

Florida originated the concept of a private choice program for children with special needs with the McKay Scholarship Program. Lawmakers created the law, which was a pilot program as a part of the 1999 A+ plan. McKay went statewide in 2001, and today 6 percent of Florida special needs students utilize the program to attend a public or private school of their parent’s choice. While only 6 percent directly use McKay, 100 percent of Florida’s special needs students attending public schools seem to have benefitted from the program. Scores for special needs students have surged in Florida in response to McKay and other reforms, in part due to increased competition for students.

Ladner post

Today, 10 states—Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah—have private choice programs for children with disabilities. One of those states took a circuitous route to getting their program, which led to the first account based choice program (and thus Florida’s current legislation).

Arizona lawmakers created a small scholarship program for children with special needs in 2005, only to see public-school interests kill the program in the Arizona Supreme Court. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that a scholarship program that could only be used at private schools violated the state’s Blaine Amendment—a relic of 19th century anti-Catholic bias. Anti-Catholic and anti-immigration groups like the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan had pushed to include measures to discriminate against Catholic schools in state constitutions during the 19th Century.

In striking down the Arizona voucher program, the Arizona Supreme Court hinted both in their deliberations and ruling that a program with multiple uses might not violate the Blaine Amendment. The Arizona Constitution forbade public aid to private schools, but not to parents themselves. Arizona choice advocates took the hint and created the first account-based K-12 choice program—the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

Lawmakers originated the program for children with special needs, but have gradually added children attending failing schools, children that have been through the foster care system, the dependents or orphans of activity duty military members and the siblings of eligible children. Unlike the school voucher program, this year the Arizona court system upheld the constitutionality of the ESA approach.

In addition to constitutional advantages, the ESA approach represents a superior way to approach parental choice due to the extra flexibility provided to parents. A voucher program allows parents to choose between schools, but an ESA allows parents to choose between schools and between education methods. This flexibility is especially welcome among the parents of special needs students, like Kathy and Christo Visser:

Jordan’s Journey ESA

Under the law that passed in Florida, students with certain disabilities, including those in public, private, and home schools can apply to the program, which has multiple allowable uses including private school tuition, therapies, digital learning, curriculum, and prepaid college savings. The provision for savings requires parents to consider opportunity costs when purchasing education services—a crucial step in creating an incentive for providers to provide both more effective and more cost-effective services.

If signed by Governor Scott, the program will be administered through approved scholarship groups. Florida administrators can draw upon a rich four year experience on the part of the Arizona Department of Education, which has developed a body of administrative rulings on account use and measures to prevent the misuse of funds through use-restricted debit cards.

Arizona originated scholarship tax credits, but Floridians took the concept to new levels by documenting evidence of the effectiveness of the concept for both participant and competitive effects. Similarly, account based choice programs also originated in Arizona, and the race is now on to see which state can best prove out the concept.

The Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts represent the next step in the evolution of parental choice programs with multiple advantages over older models. This is not your father’s Oldsmobile, but rather a remarkably liberal experiment in freedom. Parents will be given the chance to build a customized education experience for their children and will have full control down to the last penny.

I for one cannot wait to learn what they do.

About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.