Op-EdAppeared in Florida Sun-Sentinel on May 18, 2017By Elaine Parker

Education legislation gives Florida students a fighting chance | Opinion

Last week, the Florida State Senate joined the House by passing HB 7069 — a bill that would reward teacher excellence, expand online and digital learning, and increase classroom time for students, among other provisions.

But most importantly, the bill removes barriers for high-performing charter schools with proven track records from being replicated. Since first coming to the state in 1996, the number of charter schools has grown to over 650, enrolling more than 270,000 students. They are among the fastest growing educational options in the state. And the $140 million provided in this legislation will enable the best charter networks from across the country to come into the Sunshine State. While we want the most choices as possible for our families, the quality of those choices is even more important.

Opponents of the legislation argue that the bill will hurt the public school system. Sen. Gary Farmer says, “Without a doubt it will hurt our traditional public schools [and] hasten the privatization of public education.”

It’s true that these reforms will shake-up the hierarchy of the traditional public school system because they will give parents and students choices in what school to attend. This will free them from being locked into failing schools, and threaten the guaranteed attendance that is propping up these diploma mills.

These same opponents go further by arguing charter schools take away money from traditional public schools. This is misleading. Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. As students leave failing schools for successful ones, state funds will follow them. But, taxpayer resources shouldn’t remain at schools that are no longer educating students who have moved elsewhere. Even if this legislation passes, taxpayer funding per pupil is significantly lower at charter schools, which means these schools are providing students with a better education for a fraction of the cost.

The entrenched establishment associated with the traditional public school system is not just costly, but also is systematically harming the next generation. According to a 2017 state grading report from the Education Week Research Center, Florida ranks a dismal 29th in the country in a comparison of public school systems. The grading system takes into account chance for success, school finance, and K-12 achievement.

The fact is that students in the state — through no fault of their own — are not receiving the education they need to successfully operate in a dynamic world. That’s often because they are locked into a failing neighborhood school with no opportunity to go elsewhere. It would be as if you were forced to use the closest grocery store to where you live and weren’t able to shop around for the best quality.

What the education system needs to remedy the situation is more choice and competition — not regulations and a centrally controlled bureaucracy. And that is exactly what this legislation will accomplish.

Depending on local ordinances, charter schools can be started by parents, teachers, non-profit groups, and even government organizations. They can focus on specific skills and subjects such as math or science, and may be aimed at students who require alternative learning methods — such as teaching lessons that use a visual or more hands-on approach. The ability to focus on these education niches is what will allow schools to stand-out from one another, injecting competition and enhancing student education at the same time.

The concept has taken hold across the country. Since 2000, charter school enrollment has increased by 600 percent, and as of 2016, there were almost 7,000 charter schools serving 3 million students nationwide.

Not only are they growing in number, but they’re showing positive results. In fact, they have been able to thrive in the area where traditional public education has failed, improving academic results for minority and low-income students. According to a 2015 Stanford study, not only do charter schools provide significantly higher levels of performance in math and reading for all students, but they also disproportionately benefit minority and low income students.

A 2014 Florida specific study shows further long-term benefits. It concludes Florida students who attend charter high schools are 13 percent more likely to graduate high school, 17 percent more likely to attend college, and benefit from a 13 percent earning premium.

All the more reasons for Gov. Rick Scott to charter this bill’s passage.

Elaine Parker is president of the Job Creators Network Foundation.