Florida on Track to Grant Private School Funding to All Parents

By Matis Glenn

(Getty images)

A bill broadly expanding Florida’s private and home schooling programs is advancing through the legislature, and is expected to mark a major victory for proponents of school choice.

Florida, which has had select subsidized school choice programs since the late 90’s, has slowly progressed towards the current system, where lower-income families, or those with children that have special needs, can receive funding for private school education.

Under the new proposal, which was approved in the House last week and passed three Senate committee votes, parents who choose not to send their kids to public school would be granted $8,000 towards the educational programs of their choice, including home schooling, regardless of income or disability.

Previously, not all parents who qualified received funding; under the new law, there would be no limits placed on how many parents can be approved.

“We were blessed to have Gov. Jeb Bush over 20 years ago, who created a tax credit program for lower income families, and for those with children who have special needs,” Danny Aqua, Executive Director of Teach Florida, a school choice advocacy group affiliated with the Orthodox Union told Hamodia. “But it was very limited; it had a cap on how many people would qualify, and how much they can get.”

The new funding will come in the form of educational savings accounts, not vouchers. Previously, only funding for special needs children was given in such a way. Lower-income families – the vast majority of recipients – received vouchers. The $8,000, which comes close to the amount the state pays for a public school child, could be used toward not only tuition for all private schools, but also for therapy, tutoring, curriculum, and other expenses. “It’s much more flexible than the voucher system,” Aqua said, adding that most currently school choice legislations in the country use the savings account models.

State House Speaker Paul Renner has called the feature a “choice within a choice.”

“Over the years we’ve been working extremely hard to both increase the amount and eligibility for them, and a couple of the major expansions in the program were under Gov. Ron DeSantis, in 2019,” Aqua said.

Agudath Israel has contributed greatly to the cause over the last two decades as well.

“The new law is historic, extremely bold and broad in terms of its reach, and it’s something that has been driven mainly by the legislators and majority parties themselves,” Rabbi Moshe Matz, director of Agudath Israel of Florida told Hamodia.

“I think they feel empowered to promote this because at the end of the day these programs have been so successful in helping children.”

Under DeSantis, advocates were able to secure a new scholarship program which had more spots available.

Funding for school choice is split between corporation taxes, which are given at the discretion of the individual businesses, and property taxes. Another organization, Step Up for Students, collects money from corporations’ taxes.

“Thank G-d the State of Florida has a multi-billion dollar budget surplus,” Aqua said, speaking about the ability of Florida to fund the program.

Those opposed, including many Democrats, say the move would take money from public schools, but Aqua says “we’ve been able to empirically show that it doesn’t. Enrollment has increased in public schools along with every incremental increase in private school funding. Additionally, Florida had a 60% High School graduation rate in 1999; this year it’s 87 percent.”

Others argue that there are more regulations on public schools than private institutions, so the amount given to the private schools isn’t fair; to that end, the bill seeks to deregulate public schools.

Aqua says that Renner made the bill a top priority this session.

“Our goal was to find education champions like former State Senator and current Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz and support them every step of the way in their fight for school choice,” Aqua said.

The bill still needs to withstand a full Senate vote, but with a Republican supermajority, it is all but certain to pass. Afterwards, it will need to be signed into law by DeSantis. If passed, it would take effect July 1.

Teach Florida hosted a legislative breakfast event in January, where 40 elected officials attended, along with 750 guests.

Agudah representatives met with legislators last month, but times have changed politically, Rabbi Matz said.

“Normally, throughout the years we had to talk to legislators about the virtues of school choice and providing families all these options; we’d propose it in terms of civil rights for minorities…and now were finding that the push is coming from the legislators themselves. They’re asking us, ‘can your community support this?’ And of course our answer is that we do! It was really a refreshing situation to be at the table and hear from the legislators how passionate they are about advancing school choice. They want to see Florida as a leader, paving the way for other states to follow.”

Parents nationwide, Aqua says, support school choice, with polls showing that 75% are in favor of it. Other states have passed similar measures, including Arizona, West Virginia, Utah, and Iowa, with 26 other states offering some measure of programs.

School choice programs might prove to be an impetus for more people to move to the Sunshine State, adding to the droves of newcomers drawn by Florida’s conservative social movements and loose economic regulations, taxes, and Covid policies.

“When making the decision to move or not to move, it puts another notch in the ‘pro’ column,” Rabbi Matz said. “It will create a challenge for us to accommodate so many new schools, but Agudas Yisroel will be there to help facilitate and assist in whatever development will happen in the future.”

The schools play a large role in the advocacy.

“A big part of our strength comes from schools themselves,” Aqua says. “We have 38 member schools, which is the vast majority of schools in the state. The schools are active in getting parents to vote and write to elected officials, and they see how important the issue is to the community.”

Teach Florida says that in 2011, $3.2 million was given to support 788 Jewish day school students in Florida; by 2022, that number skyrocketed to 7,199 students, with $60.8 million in funding. Under the current proposal, Jewish schools would be eligible for $100 million.

The new funding has allowed Jewish schools to raise salaries for rebbeim and moros, too.

“The big schools, like Toras Emes and Lubavitch, have grown, but there are also new, small schools which cater to kids who don’t fit into the big ones, and the school choice movement has been a big part of that,” Aqua said.

Currently 250,000 have scholarships statewide, but that number is expected to reach 400,000 if the bill passes. There are, as of this year, 12,500 children enrolled in Jewish schools.

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