School children
James V. Shuls

At a recent legislative forum hosted in Boone County by the Missouri State Teachers Association, state lawmakers debated the merits of charter schools (h/t Columbia Missourian). Some were in favor of expanding charter schools; others were opposed. Currently, Missouri only has charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City. The Show-Me State limits the expansion outside of these cities and currently has no private school scholarship program.

We have been debating the issue of school choice in Missouri for more than 20 years now and it doesn’t look like our lawmakers are any closer to reaching a consensus. Meanwhile, a revolution has taken place in Florida. Ron Matus has documented this change in his terrific piece, “Miami’s Choice Tsunami,” appearing in the winter edition of Education Next.

Matus explains:

Today, 45 percent of Florida students in K-12 attend something other than their assigned schools. Charter schools are part of the mix. So are private schools that can be accessed with choice scholarships. So is an ever-growing array of district options.

This wave didn’t just happen.

In 1996, the Florida Legislature passed a law allowing creation of charter schools. The first opened that fall in Miami’s Liberty City community. Two decades later, Florida had 295,814 students in 655 charter schools—and one of the largest charter sectors in America.

In 1997, the Legislature created the Florida Virtual School to ramp up online learning. It started with 77 students and five courses. Today, it serves more than 200,000 students a year.

In 1999, the Legislature created the McKay Scholarship, a state-funded private school voucher for students with disabilities. In 2018-19, it served 30,695 students in 1,525 private schools.

In 2001, the Legislature created the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students. As of June 2019, it was serving 104,091 students in 1,825 private schools. In students and funding, it is the largest private school choice program in the U.S.

The results in Florida speak for themselves. The state is seeing incredible gains in student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” As the Orlando Sentinel reported, “Something very good is happening in Florida.” Indeed, it is.

In Miami, the focus of Education Next article, the beloved superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, embraced school choice. Matus writes, “Instead of resisting the inevitable forces of choice and customization that are re-shaping public education, Carvalho and Miami-Dade chose to harness them . . . They realized it was too powerful to avoid—and too brimming with opportunity not to embrace.”

It is time for Missourians to stop debating the merits of school choice. Choice is good. Options are good. Competition is good. While we fail to act, innovation is happening elsewhere. Now is the time to act. Now is the time to expand educational opportunities in Missouri.


About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.