Two pairs of girls huddled over storybooks in a classroom at Hernando Christian Academy while teacher Naomi Bean stood by, ready to step in if they stumbled.
The girls read slightly below grade level now. But if they follow the path of previous students in this Restoring Individuals to Successful Education class, they should soon catch up to their classmates.
"The ultimate goal is to have students integrate back into the classroom as close to grade level as possible, if not on grade level," said Bean, 69, a state-certified exceptional student education teacher who previously worked in public schools.
"And we've had a lot of success with that."
This RISE class is one of Hernando Christian's main tools for teaching exceptional education students who receive McKay scholarships — one of the three main state-funded scholarship programs available to students with a wide range of learning disabilities, or who come from low-income families.
Along with charter schools, these scholarships are at the center of the long-running debate over school choice. But there is no debate that several factors — the recent appointment of school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education, the Florida Supreme Court's dismissal in January of a teachers union challenge of the largest of these scholarship programs, and state lawmakers' willingness to increase their funding — have put these programs on a path to what one opponent calls "exponential growth."
That's appropriate, said Ron Matus, director for policy and public affairs for Step Up for Students, a nonprofit organization that distributes scholarship money. The scholarships are "a small but important part of public education," he said, and "help public education live up to its promise of equal opportunity for all kids."
But Merrill Shapiro, a rabbi and past president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which supported the union's lawsuit, said the money flows into a hodgepodge of lightly regulated private schools, most of them religious. And the scholarship programs are growing large enough, he said, to undermine public schools' ability to fulfill their constitutional mandate of providing a "free, uniform, high-quality public education."
"I believe they are an existential threat to public schools in Florida," Shapiro said.
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Over the past four years in Hernando County, spending on the following programs has increased from $2.5 million to about $8.6 million annually:
• McKay Scholarships, which pay private tuition for students with learning problems ranging from attention deficit disorder to severe autism.
The 18-year-old program has grown statewide from $168 million in 2012-2013 to a projected $218 million this school year, and in Hernando from $1.4 million to about $1.9 million.
• Florida Tax Credit Scholarships, which are funded by dollar-for-dollar tax credits for companies donating to organizations such as Step Up. Established in 2001 for low-income students, the scholarship program still mostly serves that population. But eligibility has expanded to families who earn as much as 2.6 times the federal poverty level, and since 2010 the program's statewide funding has been allowed to increase 25 percent annually.
The current statewide cap is $559 million, and the amount distributed to students from Hernando has climbed in the past four years from $1.4 million to about $5 million.
• Gardiner Scholarships, which allow the families of children with designated disabilities, including muscular dystrophy and Down syndrome, to pay for private tuition or a variety of therapies. Established in 2014 with an $18.1 million appropriation, the program received $71.4 million this year, about $1.7 million of which will go to families in Hernando. Bills recently filed in the state Legislature seek to increase funding to $200 million for next school year.
Only McKay money comes out of school district funds, and Matus said that the amounts of these scholarships — between about $4,000 and $19,000 — are often less than the cost of serving these high-needs students in public schools. And Tax Credit Scholarships pay private schools $5,886 per student — about $1,300 less than per-student funding in public schools.
But opponents of the scholarships say that every dollar going into these programs is money that could go into public schools.
"Schools lose revenue but still have all the same bills to pay — school construction, the electric, the insurance," said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association teachers union, which filed the unsuccessful suit challenging the Tax Credit Scholarships program.
Districts can lose funding for McKay students who start at private schools and return to public schools during the school year — as 14 have done this school year, said Cathy Dofka, Hernando's director of exceptional student education and student services.
Districts also must foot the bill for psychologists and other highly paid staffers who create individual education plans for children eligible for McKay scholarships — plans that parents can then pass on to private providers, said Hernando superintendent of schools Lori Romano.
"Sometimes you have 10 or 12 people around the table, and one IEP can take hours," Romano said. "Think of all the resources that go into that."
And though testing requirements for the programs vary, none of the private schools that take the money are required to administer the Florida Standards Assessment, which would allow direct comparison with public schools.
"Just about anybody can set up a school and teach what they want and receive these taxpayer funds," Shapiro said.
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The private schools, though, must provide services and show progress that parents demand, said Ken Alvarez, superintendent of Hernando Christian.
"That's our accountability," Alvarez said. "It's a market-driven situation."
Hernando Christian — a campus of tan, corrugated steel buildings surrounded by neatly tended athletic fields on the south side of Brooksville — does not accept students who score in the bottom 25 percent on standardized reading tests.
Almost all of its teachers hold bachelor's degrees, and most are certified by the state, said Alvarez, 65, previously a teacher and coach in public schools, and a private-school administrator.
Slightly more than half of the 457 students at the school receive some form of state scholarship, and about 80 percent of its graduates enroll in college.
And the school, which is in line to receive about $235,000 in McKay scholarship money from the Hernando district this school year, is accredited by a Christian education organization as well as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which also accredits public schools.
Christina Berry said she was happy with the public school her son, Hunter, 9, attended in Pasco County. But when she moved to Brooksville, she enrolled him at Hernando Christian, where she found the standards and the instruction in the RISE program to be "very similar to what he got at the public school."
But Hernando Christian teachers also have the flexibility to extend exciting lessons, such as a recent one about muscle function, without having to teach for tests, she said.
"I'm very comfortable with him going to HCA," she said.
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Esther's School, housed in a former model home center on Spring Hill Drive, takes in children with more severe problems than HCA. Partly because of this population, when principal Mike Smally lists the school's "three focus areas: God's word, positivity and teamwork," academic achievement doesn't make the cut.
Smally has a bachelor's degree in information technology but had no experience in education until being hired by Esther's two years ago as a classroom assistant, or "monitor," as they are called at Esther's, which has five other campuses in the Tampa Bay area.
All 35 students at the school "get some sort of (state) scholarship," Smally said, and it will receive about $200,000 in McKay money this school year.
Teachers — called supervisors — are required to attend a one-week training in the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum but are not required to hold a bachelor's degree and are paid about half as much as those in the public system, Smally said.
On a recent day in one classroom, six students in a line of carrels completed ACE workbooks under the guidance of a supervisor and a monitor.
Another converted model home on the campus houses the life skills class for Esther's most severely disabled students. The class is taught by Betsy Ahrens, who has about 20 years of experience in Virginia public schools and who is assisted by a monitor and contracted applied behavioral analysts assigned to work one-on-one with students and paid for by Medicaid. Medicaid and Gardiner money can also pay for outside speech therapists and other specialists at Esther's, as it does at other private schools.
Laura Peeler, 49, said Esther's is less focused on academics than a private school that her autistic 14-year-old daughter, Sinclaire, previously attended.
But "she was 12 years old and had gone over her ABCs for eight years, and that's not what she needed," said Peeler, of Brooksville.
At Esther's, Peeler said, "teachers work on skills such as getting dressed — ordinary things that we take for granted that still come hard to Sinclaire."
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But public schools are required to teach students to the highest level their individual plans allow, which is why Ken Allison, 51, said he enrolled his 14-year-old son, Nick, in Explorer K-8 School in Spring Hill in November.
In the last 2½ years, Nick had attended two private schools, the last of which informed Ken Allison that teachers had stopped working on math and reading to concentrate on Nick's social and behavior skills.
"When you have a 13-year-old who is illiterate, the last thing you want to hear is that he's not getting academics," Allison said.
So far, he said, he has been pleased with the lessons and encouragement Nick is receiving at Explorer.
In a class of a dozen students with disabilities that included Down syndrome and autism, Nick worked on a recent school day with a paraprofessional and a small group of students on a game that displayed three-letter words on a touch screen the size of a big television.
With the help of illustrations — and clapping fellow students — he was able to point out the letters to complete the words "pup" and "win."
At another station in the classroom, he sat at a table with three other students and teacher Karen Mooney, who helped him sound out short words until he read a full sentence in a storybook: "Can I eat an egg? said Fox."
"Good job, Nick!" Mooney said.
Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.