Ardent school choice supporters who are in charge of K-12 education policy and spending in the Florida House say 2017 is their year and they don't aim to waste it.
"It's a wonderful foundation that we've created in Florida" for school choice, House education committee chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said Thursday. "That foundation, we can't take for granted; that foundation is an envy of the rest of the country, where they point to us. It's incumbent upon us to understand and appreciate this platform but not be satisfied with it -- not be satisfied with incremental opportunities for our kids but really be focused on transformational opportunities."
House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, agreed: "What you're seeing right now is an opportunity for us to really blow open some of those school choice opportunities, blow open some of those opportunities that may be outside the box that everyone is always trying to block."
Bileca and Diaz were both featured speakers Thursday at a luncheon in honor of National School Choice Week put on by the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, a public policy research organization that advocates for school choice education policies.
Diaz joked that it's not often he gets to speak to such an amenable crowd, since school choice remains such a polarizing issue in Florida. And he predicted "large opposition" ahead for future changes Florida House Republicans want to implement under the leadership of Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican who himself is a passionate supporter of school choice.
"It always bothers somebody in the status quo and they always want to protect it and give you excuses why you can't do it," Diaz said. "But guess what? Those excuses are always about the institutions and the organizations and never about the kids and never about freedom and never about opportunity."
Among the policy priorities for this upcoming legislative session, Bileca said, is closing the state's achievement gap "regardless of school setting or educational setting."
"It's not OK that we have a chronic amount of schools that are perpetually in turnaround status," Bileca said. "We believe school choice is a vital component in this discussion, and we believe there are wonderful models out there -- both within the state and outside the state -- that bring to bear that we don't have to accept that the achievement gap exists, we don't have to accept that we can't erase the negative affects of poverty on our kids in an educational setting."
JMI President and CEO Bob McClure said "there's a lot to celebrate" during this year's National School Choice Week -- particularly because of what he called the "incredible victory" by school choice advocates in a recent court fight over the state's controversial Tax Credit Scholarship program. (The conflict ended last week when the Florida Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Florida's largest teachers union, which had sought to challenge the program's constitutionality.)
School choice "is simply about opportunities for families to make the best decisions for their children," McClure said. "There is no political agenda in that."
However, the debate about school choice remains divisive and, in the Capitol, it's generally along partylines -- as Republicans fight for more choice including at-times controversial elements, like for-profit charter schools, and Democrats argue that educational choice shouldn't come at the expense of traditional public schools.
Photo credit:From left: State Reps. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, and Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, discuss school choice policies during a luncheon at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. on Jan. 26, 2017, in honor of National School Choice Week. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau