Parents looking for more options and transparency when schooling their children may want to head toward the Sunshine State.
A new report from conservative public policy think tank the Heritage Foundation ranked Florida as the most parent-friendly jurisdiction in the union, followed by Arizona, Idaho and Indiana.
The inaugural 2022 edition of the "Education Freedom Report Card" also ranked New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia as the least favorable for parents seeking choice and transparency in their child's education.
The report card uses a metric of four broad categories — school choice, transparency, regulatory freedom and spending — and utilizes 30 "discrete factors" to determine each state's score.
Florida's top ranking is mainly due to its academic transparency and a "strong" education savings account (ESA) program, more commonly known as school vouchers, the report stated.
Florida adopted its ESA program in 2014, followed by several other states, including Mississippi (2015), Tennessee (2015), North Carolina (2017) and West Virginia (2021).
Florida ranked first in "academic transparency," meaning that "Florida lawmakers set a high standard for academic transparency and rejecting critical race theory's pernicious ideas in 2022."
"State officials approved a proposal that prohibits teachers and administrators from compelling students to affirm the prejudiced ideas of critical race theory," the report reads. "Lawmakers also approved a proposal that requires academic transparency so that parents and taxpayers can review classroom assignments before educators use such materials as part of K–12 instruction."
Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, which prohibits public school teachers and third parties from instructing students about sexual orientation or gender identity in grades three and younger. The law also requires schools to notify parents about changes affecting their child's mental, physical and emotional health.
The law also prevents school districts from withholding information from parents at a time when many school districts nationwide are barring teachers from discussing trans-identified students' social gender transition with their parents at the students' request.
Florida ranks seventh overall in return on investment (ROI) for education spending, a variable that measures academic achievement for the investment in terms of spending per pupil. Florida also ranked second in regulatory freedom, meaning the state's teachers and students are able "to pursue education largely devoid of red tape."
"An impressive 42 percent of Florida teachers are alternatively certified, making their way to K–12 classrooms through a means other than a traditional university-based college of education," the report added. "The state has full reciprocity of teacher licensure, allowing anyone with a valid teaching license from another state to teach in Florida, or anyone who holds a certificate issued by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards."
Arizona, which expanded its ESA option to every child statewide in July, ranked second on Heritage's report card. However, data for the ranking was collected in the early spring of 2022 before the passing of Arizona's universal ESA program. This means next year may see the state catapult over Florida to the top ranking.
That didn't stop Arizona from ranking first for school choice on the 2022 report card.
According to the report, Idaho's third-place ranking stems largely from its high ROI and transparency.
On the other end of the ranking, New Jersey, New York and D.C. are "doing little to provide transparency, accountability, and choice to families," the report finds, citing those jurisdictions' 49th, 50th and 51st rankings, respectively.
The report also underscored that while school choice remains vital, a growing number of existing schools are embracing critical race theory as "teachers have abandoned the practice of teaching their students about a shared sense of national identity, and districts are coercing teachers and students to affirm ideas that violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
"Schools are teaching children to affirm the lie that America is systemically racist, despite seminal laws, such as the Civil Rights Act, and the monumental cultural shifts and racial progress brought on by the civil rights movement," the report states.
The report's authors — Lindsey Burke, Jay Greene, Jonathan Butcher and Jason Bedrick — urge lawmakers to consider legislation that would prohibit "any public official from compelling teachers or students to affirm or profess any ideas, especially concepts that violate state and federal civil rights laws."
The report's authors also contend that parents, taxpayers and policymakers should also have access to curriculum and instructional materials and that such access was a welcome benefit gleaned from remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"[P]arents should know if teachers assign homework from the Black Lives Matter Week of Action website, for example, so that they can have informed discussions with their children, school administrators, and board members," the authors wrote. "Our report card accounts for state policymakers who have adopted provisions reaffirming state and federal civil rights laws and academic transparency provisions."
The ongoing debate comes as American public school systems have seen an exodus of students since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.
One report from the nonpartisan research group Education Next found that 2 million fewer students have been enrolled in non-charter public schools since spring 2020 when many public schools were closed for in-person instruction.
While conservative organizations have issued resounding endorsements of school voucher programs, those programs are mostly opposed by public school teachers' unions. The American Federation of Teachers argues that vouchers will primarily serve as tax breaks for wealthy families that can afford to send their kids to private schools.
Zeph Capo of the Texas American Federation of Teachers told KHOU-11 in August that voucher programs "really haven't worked out well."
"As a matter of fact, most of the evidence shows that it's actually been a waste of money and it hasn't actually improved education," Capo was quoted as saying.
But Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, told The Christian Post the study seeks to change the national conversation.
"We hope this report card catalyzes education freedom across the country," said Burke. "That more professionals are able to enter the classroom without having to go through woke colleges of education; that parents have radical transparency around the content their children's schools are teaching, that school boards become more responsive to parents than to teachers unions by moving more school board elections on-cycle; and that, most importantly, every child can choose the learning environment that's right for them through universal education choice."