Commentary: The Florida School Choice Challenge: Just Say When

From the Cover of Heritage Foundation’s School Choice Programs: What’s Happening in the States.


By Robert Sanchez


When I taught college journalism classes many years ago – at a time when the Watergate scandal was dominating the headlines — the “5 W’s and H” were staples of the introductory classes in news writing. Students, including many who obviously hoped to be the next Woodward or Bernstein, were taught to include the who, what, where, when in each and every story – and sometimes the why and the how as well.

In this little article, I’m going to provide the who, what, where, and why right away, but (spoiler alert!) I’ll defer the when until a bit later. This is intended to give curious readers a chance to think about when the following occurred and to ponder a bit of recent Florida history.

THE WHAT: It’s a publication titled School Choice Programs: What’s Happening in the States. The 78-page report included a page or so about the school choice offerings in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Here’s a sample of how the publication began its status report on Florida:

“While Florida has little in the way of parental choice, several innovative school programs are made possible by support from the private sector.”

THE WHO:  The report was written by Dorothy B. Hanks. The introduction was co-authored by Ms. Hanks and Nina H. Shokraii. It was published by The Heritage Foundation.

THE WHERE:  The report emanated from The Heritage Foundation’s headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue in our nation’s capital, but a more expansive view of “the where” would hold that its meticulous research encompassed the entire nation.

THE WHY: It’s no mystery why The Heritage Foundation would support school choice, a cause championed by one of the organization’s favorite economists, Dr. Milton Friedman, as a way to shake up a complacent educational establishment.

Many critics across the ideological spectrum believed that a shakeup – call it “creative disruption,” if you prefer — was urgently needed after years of declining test scores and rising dropout rates. Worse, public education seemed to have made little or no progress on those fronts since the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, which capsulized the sense of urgency with this dire warning:

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

FINALLY, THE WHEN: The publication’s front cover leaves no doubt with regard to the when. Superimposed on a teal green map of the United States are huge numerals that almost stretch from coast-to-coast and from Canada to Mexico. The year: 1997.

THEN AND NOW: Much has changed in Florida since 1997. To do justice to the many school choice options now available to Florida parents concerned about their children’s education would require a report much longer than the one Ms. Hanks authored 20 years ago.

However, it’s instructive to recall some of the milestones along the path from “While Florida has little in the way of school choice” to today’s multiplicity of choices – so many, in fact, that fewer than half of Florida’s schoolchildren attend schools in attendance zones assigned to the area where they live.

MILESTONE ONE: In 1987, Dr. J. Stanley Marshall founded The James Madison Institute. In the decade between JMI’s founding and that discouraging 1997 report saying that Florida has “little in the way of school choice,” JMI was busy laying the foundation for school choice by educating legislators and other public officials. Many of those landmark JMI studies and Journal articles supporting school choice are archived on the Institute’s website, www.jamesmadisoninstitute.org.

MILESTONE TWO: Gradually, over the years, control of the Florida Legislature changed hands, flipping from one political party to the other. In 1983, when A Nation at Risk was published, Democrats controlled Florida’s House of Representatives 84 to 36 and the state Senate 32 to 8.

When JMI was founded in 1987, the Democrats’ margin was still an imposing 75 to 45 in the House and 25 to 15 in the Senate. Although a Republican, Bob Martinez, took office as Florida’s Governor in January of 1987, Martinez – a former teachers union official – was not a fervent supporter of school choice.

A lot had changed by 1997, the year of the Heritage Foundation’s state-by-state survey of the status of school choice offerings. Following the 1996 election, conservative Republican Daniel Webster succeeded liberal Democrat Peter Rudy Wallace as House Speaker, becoming the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction thanks to the GOP’s slender 61 to 59 majority.

Two years earlier the GOP had gained control of the Florida Senate after a curious two-year period (1992-94) during which the two parties were tied at 20 seats each. (Under a power-sharing agreement, Republican Ander Crenshaw served as Senate President the first year, Democrat Pat Thomas the second.)  By 1997 the GOP held a 23-17 margin in the Senate.

This shift in partisan control was important because it meant that the Legislature included many more lawmakers were philosophically receptive to the school choice advocacy of JMI and other supportive organizations, including Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future.

Although school choice programs now have enthusiastic supporters in both major political parties, there is no disputing that the GOP historically has been more supportive of school choice than a Democratic Party that counts the teachers union among its core constituency.

Granted, in recent years, courageous Democrats – understandably worried about the future of children trapped in sub-par schools – have broken with their party’s leaders and supported various school choice programs.

Even so, there is no doubt that the political climate in Florida and other states became more favorable for various school choice options when the Republican Party won control of the Legislature and elected gubernatorial candidates supportive of giving parents the right to choose what they deem best for their kids.

 MILESTONE THREE: In 1998, the year following that discouraging 1997 report, Floridians elected an avid supporter of school choice as their next Governor. John Ellis “Jeb” Bush had co- founded a charter school in Miami’s poverty-stricken Liberty City neighborhood, so he was intimately familiar with the need for more educational options.

During his eight years as Florida’s Governor, Jeb Bush championed school choice programs, which greatly expanded despite relentless attacks by the Florida Education Association, whose lawyers could generally count on winning lawsuits that reached the liberal-leaning Florida Supreme Court.

Despite these headwinds, crucial support from Governor Bush, his successors as governor, various attorneys general, and other Cabinet officers has been crucial in maintaining Florida’s school choice momentum in the face of these relentless challenges.

THE NOW: If The Heritage Foundation were to issue a new school choice report in the same format as its 1997 study but with a big 2017 superimposed over the U.S. map on the cover, the section on Florida could not possibly begin “While Florida has little in the way of parental choice….” Instead, it could read “When it comes to parental choice, in the years since our report 20 years ago, Florida has swiftly moved from laggard to leader.”