By Dr. Robert McClure and Brewster Bevis
In education, no one size fits all. That’s why Florida must do everything possible to ensure that every learning option is available to every family. Even if families choose an option – like online learning – that didn’t exist a generation or two ago.
Last year, Florida led a surge among states in launching or expanding education savings accounts (ESAs). With ESAs, funds follow students, and parents are empowered to choose schools they believe are best for their children. Florida’s new law expanded the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) programs to all students, granting parents the ability to utilize these accounts for their children’s private school tuition, homeschooling, or other education-related expenses.
This led to an influx of new families using scholarship funds and exercising school choice, many for the first time ever. The FES program saw an impressive 30 percent increase since the previous school year, with over 85,000 new students enrolling for the 2023-24 academic year.
Yet, while Florida’s new law expanded opportunities for many families, there was a notable exclusion, which became apparent shortly after the bill was passed. The law prevented scholarship funds from being used for full-time or blended private virtual schools. In effect, the state’s school choice law inadvertently blocked parents from choosing this one school choice model.
Prohibiting private virtual schools from participating in the scholarship program was explained as a drafting error in the original construction of the bill. It was seen as a simple fix for lawmakers – and one that could easily be resolved this legislative session – however, to date, the problem has yet to be addressed.
Florida is a state known for pioneering digital learning in its K-12 public school system. Through public charter schools and school districts – and the nation’s largest state-run program, Florida Virtual School – over 40,000 students are currently enrolled in full-time public virtual schools. Yet this same option remains excluded for private school families.
This exclusion in Florida’s law stands in stark contrast with other states that have passed ESAs. Arizona, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Iowa all permit families to use their funds for the widest range of educational options, including private virtual schools.
State and national education reform groups have taken notice and are calling for action. In January, a coalition of prominent organizations – American Federation for Children, Americans for Prosperity, EdChoice, ALEC Action, Florida Parents for School Options, Heritage Action, The James Madison Institute, yes. every kid, and Teach Florida – sent a letter to Florida legislators asking them to fix Florida’s ESA law.
In recent weeks, several parents passionately voiced their concerns at legislative hearings in Tallahassee. They urged their elected representatives to amend the law and give private school families the same access to virtual school options that are available in public schools.
Unfortunately, still no action has been taken by the Legislature on this important issue.
At The James Madison Institute and Associated Industries of Florida, we strongly believe in affording parents maximum flexibility in choosing the educational path that best aligns with their children’s needs. Whether it is a traditional public or private school, charter school, parochial school, full-time virtual school, or homeschool, we stand for equal access to all education options. And we stand for the right of parents to direct the education and welfare of their children.
At its core, education is about empowerment – empowering students to pursue their passions, empowering parents to make choices that align with their values, and giving equal access to all educational models, whether provided through public schools or private schools.
Florida legislators should do what is right for families and amend the law to make full-time and blended private virtual schools eligible for scholarship funds. It’s a small and simple fix, but one that will go a long way to enshrining Florida as America’s leader in educational freedom.
Dr. Robert McClure is the president and CEO of The James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Florida.
Brewster B. Bevis is the president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida (AIF). Bob McClure is the president and CEO of The James Madison Institute.