For U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the shining example for the country's education system is nestled in Florida.
Since taking the reins of the national education system in February, DeVos has made frequent stops in the Sunshine State to advocate for school choice programs nationwide. To DeVos and the Trump administration, Florida is the beacon to the future of expanded education choices around the country.
DeVos has spent a great deal of time drumming up support for school choice programs in Florida, where nearly 100,000 students take advantage of the Tax Credit Scholarship program each year.
In February, DeVos joined President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to tour a private Catholic School, where many students can afford to attend thanks to the state’s voucher program.
Since then, DeVos hasn’t let up on her venture promoting choice-friendly policies.
Last week, she jetted off to South Florida where she visited several schools and Florida International University. On Friday, she met with rapper and charter school backer Pitbull at the SLAM Charter School in Miami as part of her school choice tour.
Since 2002, thousands of Florida students have participated in the Tax Credit Scholarship program, which gives low-income students scholarship money to attend better-performing schools, which are often private religious schools.
Businesses receive dollar-for-dollar tax breaks when they donate to nonprofit, private scholarship programs like Step Up For Students, which administers the largest number of scholarships in the state.
The program has grown by leaps and bounds throughout the years, with an increase of nearly 80,000 students since the 2005-2006 school year.
It is the largest of its kind in the country.
The program stepped on the scene in the midst of an education overhaul backed largely by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who came into office in 1999. At the time, Florida’s schools were once among the worst performing in the country, often ranking at the back of the pack in terms of educational achievement.
Bush, seeing an opportunity to change course, honed in on massively reforming public education, instituting an “A-F” letter grading system and putting standardized tests in place to raise the bar for Florida students.
Those efforts paid off -- soon enough, Florida climbed in the rankings and now boasts making great strides closing the achievement gap among minority groups in the Sunshine State.
For years, DeVos has looked at Florida as a model of success in public education.
"Florida is...probably the best case study of how all of the pieces work together,” DeVos said in an interview with Philathropy Roundtable in 2013.
Years later, DeVos still hasn’t changed her tune.
“I would point to Florida as being one that has had a variety of options for the longest period of time," DeVos told Michigan radio station WJR last month.
Speaking at Care Elementary School last week, DeVos called the school an “awesome example of the opportunity provided through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”
“Nearly all of the students here are participating in that program and wouldn’t be here were it not for that opportunity,” she said, adding she favored private schools because of smaller classroom sizes which fostered closer relationships between teachers and students.
DeVos has found a strong ally in President Trump, who also says school choice is the way to better national education. During his joint address to Congress in February, Trump urged members of Congress to hop onboard with expanding school choice options in the United States.
“I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children,” he said. “These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”
The Tax Credit Scholarship program has not been met without controversy, though. A lengthy lawsuit over the constitutionality of the program weaved its way through the Florida court system for years until the Florida Supreme Court finally dismissed the case earlier this year, effectively ending one of the most contentious chapters in Florida’s education history.
Critics of the program said it was unconstitutional because it funneled public dollars to private schools and many disagreed with sending students to religious institutions via public dollars.
“We still believe that the tax credit vouchers are unconstitutional, but we haven’t had the opportunity to argue our case in court,” said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, which led the charge in the lawsuit. “We’re baffled that the courts would deny taxpayers the right to question state expenditures.”
Those criticisms didn’t hold up. The program still pushes on in spite of naysayers.
"You only have one chance to either do well by your children or to ruin them, and I was trying to give them the best opportunity they could have," Linzi Morris, a mother of six scholarship recipients, told the Washington Post.
In the end, it all comes back to Florida -- and the Sunshine State, DeVos says, is a glimpse into the possibility for success nationwide.
"Florida is a good and growing example of what can happen when you have a robust array of choices," she said.