Florida continues to expand school choice with new programs

Florida Governor Rick Scott addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature, which this year continued its long-running efforts to expand school choice. Lawmakers approved the "Hope Scholarship," which students can use to attend private school if they feel victimized at their public school. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Florida Governor Rick Scott addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature, which this year continued its long-running efforts to expand school choice. Lawmakers approved the "Hope Scholarship," which students can use to attend private school if they feel victimized at their public school. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published November 1 2018
Updated November 1 2018

Florida families continue to take advantage of school choice options in greater numbers, as the variety available to them grows with new programs.The latest, which debuted in October, is limited to students who report having been bullied or harassed in their public school. Lawmakers established a tax credit scholarship called “Hope” to help those children who feel victimized afford attending a private school, or to have free transportation to a different public school.

The numbers in that “Hope” program are still small, but state analysts suggested that thousands of students soon could be eligible.Interest in most of the state’s choice offerings has steadily risen as funding and availability have increased. And they go beyond the themed magnets, academies and other programs offered by school districts.

Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program ­is the largest of its kind in the nation and serves more students than all but the state’s largest school districts.It offers scholarships through one of two authorized funding organizations, Step Up For Students and AAA Scholarship Foundation, to the state’s low-income students. Over time, the program has become a model for other states even as critics seek to kill it, arguing that it removes money from state coffers by allowing donors to get a tax write off for their contributions.

In 2017-18, the program spent about $641 million to support 108,098 children in 1,818 participating private schools. For students with disabilities, the state has two scholarship programs that allow families to seek education outside their neighborhood school.The McKay Scholarship is for students with disabilities. They can attend a private school or a different public school with the money.

To qualify, children must have attended a public school the year before applying, and must have a qualified Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Accommodation Plan.

Established in 2000, the McKay program served 31,044 students in 1,482 participating schools during the 2017-18 academic year.Closely related is the Gardiner Scholarship, created in 2016 for children with certain disabilities and who have an approved IEP. In 2017-18, nearly two thirds of the recipients were on the autism spectrum, and used the money for tuition and fees at private schools.

The award also can be used to purchase curriculum, materials and other services, and to offset the costs of home schooling. Parents can apply through the scholarship funding organizations. In three years, the program has grown to over 10,000 students. One of the least used school choice options is the Opportunity Scholarship, directed at students who attend schools graded D or F in the state accountability system. Children can attend another public school with a higher grade, and receive transportation to that campus.

School districts may select which schools the students can pick from, and the selection is usually limited because of such concerns as transportation and capacity. Most districts report participation rates in the single digits.

The high point for enrollment came in 2011, when 4,424 children accepted a transfer. In 2017-18, the number was 3,074.A much more popular option has been home schooling, which had 89,817 participants in 2017-18, up about 2,400 from the previous year. The districts with the largest number of home-schooled students were Duval, Hillsborough and Orange counties.

To home school, parents need only submit a written statement to their district listing the name, address and birth date of the students. Parents do not have to provide a specific type of education, but they must keep a portfolio of student work and materials for inspection, if requested. Children in the program also must sit for at least one of five evaluations each year, and submit the results to their school district.

Virtual schooling is another option for students seeking something different than the traditional classroom. Several districts provide online courses, as do Florida Virtual School and a growing number of virtual charter schools.

Many students take courses online in addition to their regular classes, though they are permitted to attend virtual school full time. Some families use the virtual programs in conjunction with their home schooling efforts.

For the families that prefer to remain in the public system, but do not want to use a magnet or charter school, all districts are required to have an open enrollment system. In it, schools accept children from outside their attendance zones, if there is sufficient capacity.

Two years ago, lawmakers made it easier for children to transfer to schools with open space across district boundaries, as well, although in-county residents have the first pick of seats.

All students may apply for open enrollment, without limitations on economic status, grades or other factors.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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