State Policy Network
James Madison Institute’s storytelling helps Florida expand education options to 61,000 new families

During the middle of Florida’s 2021 legislative session, negotiations to expand education choice scholarships had reached an impasse. The Florida Senate wanted to convert all existing scholarship programs, like vouchers, into Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). The Florida House wanted to take a more cautious approach out of fear that a few families eligible for scholarship assistance might misuse ESAs—and thereby potentially jeopardize all school choice programs with negative publicity.

The James Madison Institute (JMI), a nonprofit in Tallahassee, stepped in and shared a powerful story of a Florida family benefiting from school choice vouchers but wanting to convert those vouchers into ESAs. This story helped lawmakers reach a policy compromise and expand parental choice in the Sunshine State—while also building the Institute’s brand as a top resource on education policy. 

Let’s take a look at how JMI’s storytelling helped Florida lawmakers reach a compromise, preserve ESAs, and expand education choice scholarships to 61,000 new families. 

SPN: What was your story?

JMI: Several months ago, JMI’s William Mattox got to know an African American “community organizer” named Talethia Edwards in the course of doing some after-hours volunteer work in Tallahassee. 

Talethia Edwards and her husband Harold have a house full of precocious children. One of those kids is a preteen son who scored 159 on an IQ test and someday hopes to find the solution to one of the six problems no mathematician has yet been able to solve. A scholar at Florida State University’s famous “mag lab” is interested in helping mentor this boy’s academic development.

Which is one of the reasons Talethia supports converting school choice vouchers (which the Edwards have used at a conventional private school) into flexible Education Savings Account (ESA) scholarships that parents can use to fund a wide array of “unbundled” educational opportunities, including one-on-one mentoring arrangements.

Talethia believes expanding the flexibility of school choice scholarships would make them more useful to many families, including the growing number of African American families now embracing innovative micro education options. 

When Mattox learned of Talethia’s remarkable story—and of her support for education choice generally and ESAs in particular—he invited her to sit down for a lengthy interview so that he could capture all the details, write the story, and then connect it to the unfolding legislative debate over ESAs.

Mattox wrote and published the story at redefinED. In the story, he encouraged lawmakers to consider differentiating scholarship amounts for those using traditional tuition vouchers and those using flexible ESAs. That would give greater flexibility to scholarship-eligible families (like the Edwards) who need learning options not on the current menu. At the same time, it would give scholarship recipients happy with their current school no economic incentive to switch from vouchers to ESAs.

SPN: Who was your primary audience? Were there any secondary audiences?

JMI: Our primary audience for this story was legislators—especially House Republicans concerned that Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) would be misused by some of the lower-income and working-class families eligible for scholarship assistance.

Our secondary audience for this story was the larger public—particularly well-educated professionals who follow K-12 education policy issues and are not yet aware/convinced that flexible forms of education choice (namely, ESAs) can sometimes meet the needs of an individual student in a way that less-flexible forms of school choice (open enrollment, charter schools, tuition vouchers, etc.) cannot.

SPN: What platforms did you use to reach your audience?

JMI:  We placed our article at redefinedonline.org, the most-influential media outlet on K-12 education issues in our state. The editors at redefinED gave the story prominent play on their main website and in their Florida Round-Up e-newsletter. We then promoted the story through social media and took out a series of paid ads (linking to the story) in Sunburn— Florida’s premier daily “insider” report, which reaches more legislators and policy influencers than any other media enterprise in our state.  

In addition, we also cited this story in legislative testimony before the House and Senate Education Committees, raised it in personal meetings with key legislators and legislative aides (including an education-themed dinner we held at an area restaurant), and referenced it in speeches, interviews, and panel discussions about education choice (including a major program on the Florida State University campus that Mattox moderated—which featured Talethia Edwards as a presenter).

SPN: How did the story shape your brand’s image? How did it influence policymakers and the public? 

JMI:  Our redefinED story not only helped us burnish JMI’s brand as storytellers and researchers, but it helped strengthen our brand as policy “insiders” capable of making very constructive contributions to the “sausage-making” process. Indeed, we fielded more requests for K-12 education policy assistance (from the Senate President’s office on down) in 2021 than we have ever fielded before.  

In the end, the House and Senate struck a compromise that satisfied all concerns, expanded education choice scholarships to 61,000 new families, and preserved ESAs as an option going forward. In addition, we have already received requests from a number of key legislative leaders about what “next steps” the Legislature ought to take to advance the “differentiated scholarship” idea that we first offered in our redefinED story. We are currently working on a new policy paper that outlines these “next steps,” which will be released this fall. 

For their success in using powerful storytelling to advance education options for thousands of Florida families, The James Madison Institute is a finalist in State Policy Network’s Communications Excellence Awards, in the Powerful Storytelling Award category.

Policy Issues: K-12 Education
States: Florida
Organization: State Policy Network