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Opponents’ fibs falter in view of school choice facts

Does offering parents the option of sending their children to public charter schools or providing them with scholarships to assist with private-school tuition harm public education?

The correct answer is solidly “no” if you’re interested in the facts offered by credible sources like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “the nation’s report card.”

Just for fun, let’s try doing something far-left opponents of educational liberty rarely do: consider unvarnished history and accurate comparisons of Kentucky, which offers no parent-controlled school choice, with other states that have such alternatives.

Consider, for example, the difference in educational trajectories between Florida and Kentucky since the early 1990s when neither state had school choice offerings and now, when nearly half a million students in the Sunshine State are being educated in public charter and private schools – including more than 100,000 via scholarship tax-credit policies – chosen by their parents rather than assigned by bureaucrats.

If school choice opponents’ theory that offering parent-controlled options on where to educate their children decimates public education holds up, shouldn’t Florida’s public system be devastated by now?

Yet, the NAEP indicates the opposite has occurred, sometimes even in dramatic fashion.

In 1992 – four years before Florida passed its first choice law, which was a charter school bill – 26 other states outscored the Sunshine State’s fourth-graders in reading while only four states and Washington, D.C., performed more poorly.

Flash forward to 2019, where only one state scored higher than Florida while 32 others and D.C. finished lower.

Similar shifts occurred in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade results in these same subjects.

While Florida was implementing a multitude of school choice policies at the same time it was improving its educational outcomes, Kentucky’s academic trajectory remained stagnant and – relative to other states – even declined in some academic areas.

For example, in 1992, Kentucky scored higher than Florida in NAEP fourth-grade reading results but was scoring significantly lower by 2019.

Not only has the growth in Florida’s choice programs been accompanied by major improvement in the academic progress of its public school students, there’s also been a dramatic increase in the efficient use of its education dollars.

Kentucky moved in the opposite direction – spending more even while its academic performance has lagged – so taxpayers get less bang for their billions of bucks spent each year on public schools.

In 2018-inflation-adjusted dollars, Kentucky’s per-pupil spending increased from $8,300 in 1992 to $12,500 in 2018 while Florida’s only increased by the equivalent of $500 during that entire time.

Census data indicate in 2018 only six states spent less per student than Florida while Kentucky spends more than 15 states.

I challenge school choice opponents and legislators nervous about defending votes to fund charter schools in Kentucky or offer poor students a scholarship created by tax credits – a policy found in 18 other states, where, again, opponents’ promises of decimation have proven false – to find credible evidence that simply throwing more money at public education without other reforms, including parent-controlled alternatives, improves the system.

Relevant evidence indicates it’s just the opposite.

Neither can Florida’s impressive achievements be attributed to “white privilege.”

Whites remain a majority in Kentucky but now are very much a minority in the Sunshine State, which has experienced a significant demographical shift since the early 1990s.

More than 60% of Florida’s fourth-graders were white in 1992 compared to only 40% today.

In Kentucky, 75% of fourth-graders still are white.

Considering white students score better on NAEP tests than minority groups, the fact that Florida has demonstrated such academic improvement compared to majority-white Kentucky indicates that school choice has more of a positive impact than even its most ardent supporters anticipated while demonstrating none of the public-school failures postulated by opponents’ fibs.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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