A primer on education choice options available to Florida families

(Patrick R. Gibbons | reimaginED) – You don’t have to go far back in time to see how much educational choice has exploded in popularity. Forty years ago, Florida parents had the option of sending their child to their zoned local neighborhood school or paying for private school tuition out of their own pockets. About 90% of Florida’s students attended their neighborhood public school at the time.

The Sunshine State added magnet schools and home education options in the mid-80s and charter schools by the mid-90s. School vouchers came in 1999, tax credit scholarships in 2001, and education savings accounts by 2014. Today, nearly half of Florida’s K-12 students attend something other than their traditional neighborhood public school.

With all the educational options on the table in 2022, it is easy to see how people can get confused. Here are some basic definitions of what’s on the menu of education choices available to families as Florida continues to move in the direction of even more school choice expansion.

Neighborhood public school: This is the traditional public school most of us remember from our childhood. The school is run by the local school board and students are assigned to the school based on their ZIP code. Contrary to popular belief, Florida does not require public schools to be accredited.

Open enrollment: Another district-run public option, open enrollment allows students to transfer to a public school outside of their own ZIP code.

Magnet schools: District-run public schools that offer specialization in a subject area. Magnet schools were historically established in low-income or minority neighborhoods to help boost the school’s diversity. Students must apply for a spot in the program.

Career and professional academies: District-run public programs operating inside of a Florida middle school or high school. These schools focus on specific career paths such as automotive repair, cooking, journalism, marketing, and much more. Like magnet schools, students apply to attend.

AP, IB, and AICE: Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Advanced International Certificate are rigorous high school degree programs offered in select schools throughout Florida. Students may even earn college credit by taking these courses.

Charter schools: Often confused with private schools because of their independence from local school districts and required school uniforms. But charters are privately run, tuition-free public schools.

Lab schools: Lab schools are charter schools operated by a Florida university. These universities are Florida Atlantic, Florida State, Florida A&M, and the University of Florida.

Virtual schools: Florida Virtual School is the state’s largest public virtual school. Virtual schools are free public schools that operate online, rather than in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. Fifty-four of Florida’s 67 school districts also offer their own free virtual schools for students.

Private schools: Privately operated schools that charge tuition and fees. Like some district-run options (such as magnet schools), private schools are allowed to set their own admissions criteria, though they cannot discriminate on the basis of race, creed, or national origin. Parents pay for private schools through their own out-of-pocket expenses or through one of Florida’s various scholarship programs. These scholarship programs include:

Voucher: The McKay Scholarship (for students with special needs) and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (an income-based scholarship) are publicly funded scholarships that help pay the cost of private school tuition.

Tax Credit Scholarship: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (an income-based scholarship) and Hope Scholarship (for victims of bullying) are funded through private contributions. These scholarships also help pay the cost of private school tuition.

Education Savings Account (ESA): The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs) allows parents to pay for school tuition, fees, textbooks, school supplies, therapies, and more. Think of ESAs as bank accounts to fund education.