As the single mother of a child who received a scholarship for disadvantaged children to attend a private school, I’ve seen how school choice can influence and change the life of a child. Not only have I seen it in my own son’s life, I’ve seen it in the lives of countless other children. However, those of us who support school choice see it as part of a broader school reform effort.

And now growing evidence shows that school reforms that incorporate school choice can deliver real progress. One place where this is becoming increasingly clear is Florida, a state that is a national leader in offering families school choice options. In Florida, a decade of aggressive education reforms has led to remarkable progress in improving students’ academic achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Since 1998, Florida students have improved by 32 percent in the percentage of 4th grade students scoring “basic” on the reading exam as well as a 54 percent increase in those scoring “proficient.”

What’s most inspiring about this story is that the greatest academic gains have been made by Florida’s African American and Hispanic students. For example, Florida’s Hispanic students now outscore the statewide average of all students in 15 states on the 2007 fourth-grade reading exam. Florida’s African American students also beat the statewide average of all students in Louisiana and Mississippi, and they are close to passing other states.

How did Florida achieve this remarkable success? A new Heritage study answers this question. The authors argue that this progress was caused by a broad recipe of reforms that included holding schools and students accountable for results, strengthening classroom instruction strategies, and enacting new policies to attract and reward effective school teachers. A vital component of this overall reform strategy was expanding school choice options. Thanks to a strong charter school law and private school scholarship programs, many families in Florida have the power to choose the best school for their children.

As the mother of a child whose life was transformed by the opportunity to attend a school that best met his needs, I know that school choice – coupled with other reforms to improve public education – can help all students achieve their academic potential. Leaders across the country should learn from Florida’s success.

Virginia Walden Ford is a Visiting Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.