Nathaniel Cunneen: Florida just lost its school choice crown — can we get it back?

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For the better part of two decades, Florida has set the standard for school choice in America.

With more than one million graduates of school choice programs stretching across two decades, Florida has served as the model for school choice success and the only place where education reformers could study the effects of education freedom at scale. In the more than twenty years since the introduction of school choice in Florida, the state catapulted from the bottom of national K-12 rankings to the No. 3 spot.

That’s not a coincidence.

As a former beneficiary of the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship, and a firm believer in the Florida paradise, I wish that we still held the title of best school choice state. Alas, Florida is poised to lose the crown.

In July, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed the nation’s first universal-eligibility education savings account (ESA) legislation. This expansion will bring educational options to more than 1.1 million Arizona students, giving them access to accounts that can be used for private school tuition, online education, education therapies, or tutoring.

For the first time in history, every student in Arizona will have access to educational options and an escape route from one-sized-fits-all systems. Although many students will be happy with their assigned public schools and stay, every family can access the education provider that meets their individual needs if the traditional system is not working.

This school choice expansion is the largest in U.S. history.

To put that in context, Florida-based Step Up for Students, the nation’s largest scholarship-granting organization (SGO), has qualified 245,414 students to receive scholarships for the 2022-23 school year. That number is representative of two decades of school choice growth, but Arizona just quadrupled it in one fell swoop.

No doubt, 245,414 is an amazing achievement, but if Florida wants to regain its position as the top school choice state, we have some work to do in Tallahassee.

School choice isn’t a competition, but a well-intentioned rivalry with Arizona is something we should welcome. The positive effects of Florida’s school choice programs are well-documented, and Florida families stand to benefit from expanded access

An Urban Institute study of the Florida tax credit showed that students like me, who used the program to attend a private school for more than four years, were 99% more likely to attend universities and 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. Not only do scholarship recipients benefit, but evidence shows that nearby public schools also benefit from school choice. Additionally, last year I contributed to a report detailing how school choice has especially helped Black students in Florida.

The education freedom tide lifts all boats.

These are just some reasons why Florida should further expand school choice. We made progress last year through the expansion of the Florida Empowerment Scholarship (FES), but Arizona has officially upped the ante. Florida lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis should follow suit and pass a universal-eligibility program so that every one of Florida’s 2.7 million students can access the educational options they need to succeed. It’s time for the Sunshine State to extend education freedom to every single kid.

School choice isn’t a competition, but in this case, it should be. Increases in school choice options are celebrated because they represent real, life-changing opportunities for students who want something different from what the current system offers.

As a native Floridian and graduate of her school choice programs, I hope to see Florida enact a universal program and retake its position as the best school choice state in the nation.

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Nathan Cunneen is a Communications Associate at the American Federation for Children and a past recipient of Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program.

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