Educational choice, not school choice, making moves in Florida


May 18, 2017

While Florida garners national attention as the site of tax credit scholarships captivating Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, a lesser-known example of choice in education in the state could be turning into a movement.

Florida is one of the homes of “course access” or “course choice” legislation that allows public dollars to follow students to pay for an individual course of their choice. In the case of Florida, that movement started with the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) in 2003, which only receives money when students successfully complete a course. Course access has traditionally been mostly for high school students.

That script may now be flipping in Florida. According to a longtime observer of the Florida education scene, rather than have the school control the educational experiences, as occurs in course access, a subset of parents, particularly at the elementary school level—both public and home-school—are opting to manage their children’s education and customize a mix of public brick-and-mortar school, online school, home school, and even some private school (such as private music lessons) experiences. In other words, a student might take her core academics online at home, come in to the local elementary school for arts and physical education, and then enroll in a music academy for private piano lessons. Or the core classes could be at the public school and extracurricular activities could be delivered online. All of this is possible in Florida because of FLVS’s Flex program, which allows students to attend part-time.

Some key questions at this stage are if this is a trend, will it extend beyond Florida? And what implications for school finance will it have?

Customization in other sectors

In every industry, the early successful products and services often have an interdependent architecture—meaning that they tend to be proprietary and bundled. The reason for this is that when a technology is immature, in order to make the products reliable or powerful enough so that they will gain traction, an entity has to wrap its hands around the whole system architecture so that it can wring out every ounce of performance.

When someone changes one piece in a product that has an interdependent architecture, necessity requires complementary changes in other pieces. Customizing a product or service, as a result, becomes complicated and expensive. Many of these interdependencies are not predictable so all pieces must be designed interactively. Customizing a product whose architecture is interdependent requires a complete redesign of the entire product or service every time. As a result, an interdependent architecture mandates standardization.

As a technology matures, however, it eventually overshoots the raw performance that many customers need. As a result, new innovations emerge that are more modular—or unbundled—as customers become less willing to pay for things like power and increased reliability but instead prioritize the ability to customize affordably by mixing and matching different pieces that fit together according to precise standards.

Modular architectures optimize flexibility, which allows for easy customization. Because people can change pieces without redesigning everything else, real customization for different needs is relatively easy.

In the early interdependent world, people are willing to tolerate standardization because customization is prohibitively expensive. In addition, differences in usage patterns—and therefore people’s individual needs—are not obvious during the interdependent stage of an industry’s evolution. As products and their markets mature, however, technology grows more sophisticated, as do customers. They begin to understand their unique needs and to insist on customized products. Technological maturity makes customization possible. Product and service architectures become more modular in this environment.

For decades, schools have offered a very interdependent and consequently standardized educational experience for parents. As online learning has grown, the vision of modularizing parts of the school and classroom experience to customize a student’s education has grown in popularity. It’s entirely possible that as we see online learning continuing to mature, many parents now don’t just want a customized experience for their children, they increasingly want to directly control and customize that experience, just as we’ve seen in other sectors.

Outside of Florida, the emergence of a wide variety of micro-schools points to a similar phenomenon. The families who send their children to micro-schools often want an option other than home schooling that will personalize learning for their child’s needs. And they are often thrilled if it’s a stripped-down, small school that students attend a couple days a week where they can customize their children’s experience around the edges, in areas like music, science, engineering, sports, and so forth. In other words, it’s perfectly fine that the school itself offers something limited in an area because the parents will find another way to provide students with that experience. This is actually something parents of home-schooled children have done for years, but increasingly some seem to be saying that they would like some of the benefits of the local public school, for which they are paying with their tax dollars, as they do so.

The impact on finances

Many observers may worry that this trend could be expensive with students essentially piling up services funded by the state. But according to FLVS’s internal numbers, that’s not the case. By looking at students who were declared ineligible for its Flex program in the most recent academic year because they had not attended public school in the year prior, FLVS was able to follow where those students went back to and create a counter-factual for what those students would do if they were not enrolled in a part-time public program. Some students returned to a home-school or private school environment, some went to FLVS full time (a more affordable option from the state’s perspective than a traditional public school), and some went to traditional public school. The net impact on public financing had those students all enrolled in FLVS Flex was actually positive to the tune of roughly $400 to $500 saving per student, not insignificant in a state where total per pupil funding hovers around $8,500 in any given year.

If programs like this expanded, could those savings be redirected to students most in need? And how do the students of families who avail themselves of this choice do academically, socially and from an extracurricular perspective? Many questions to be asked and answered, but this development is an intriguing wrinkle that takes us well beyond the national theme of school choice.

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Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.