Gov. Ron DeSantis unveils plan to expand state money for private school tuition

He proposes a new scholarship for low-income students similar to the tax credit program already in place.
Gov. Ron DeSantis makes an education announcement at Calvary Christian Academy in Orlando on Feb. 15, 2019. [WKMG live screen grab]
Gov. Ron DeSantis makes an education announcement at Calvary Christian Academy in Orlando on Feb. 15, 2019. [WKMG live screen grab]
Published Feb. 15, 2019|Updated Feb. 15, 2019

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Friday his proposal for an “equal opportunity scholarship” that would allow more children to attend private schools using public money.

The program would supplement Florida’s fast-growing Tax Credit Scholarship, which already pays private school tuition for tens of thousands of low-income children every year using money donated by corporations in exchange for tax forgiveness.

The governor is proposing a more direct way of doing the same thing, though he is leaving the details to lawmakers. He urged them Friday to “send me a bill” to make his initiative a reality.

DeSantis said he wanted the new state-funded scholarships to be on the same scale as the $700 million tax credit program, which pays tuition for more than 100,000 students at about 1,800 private schools. He said this would allow more children in need to get into the schools that can best serve them.

“If the taxpayer is paying for education, it’s public education” regardless of where the student attends, said DeSantis, who campaigned as strong supporter of the school choice initiatives his Republican colleagues have been championing for two decades.

His proposal is sure to see opposition from groups who fear the school choice movement has already eroded Florida’s public schools. And by overtly pushing the notion that the state’s education mission can be carried out in private schools, he is taking the debate to a new level.

But it isn’t without good reason, he argued.

“We have parents who are lining up for a tax credit scholarship. They would not do that if the program was not succeeding,” DeSantis said. "The question for us now is, should we be satisfied there is a growing wait list, or should we build off the successes?”

Among the other unknowns: The cost of such a program and whether it would be funded using money currently set aside for public schools.

The Florida Education Association, which has long battled to keep taxpayer funds in the public school system, referred to DeSantis’ proposal as another in a series of “voucher schemes” disguised as scholarship programs.

Students who return to public schools from such programs are behind in their academic progress, the group said in a statement. And the private schools they come from “are not subject to the same civil rights laws, and do not face the same accountability and transparency standards that our neighborhood public schools must meet.”

In contrast, Erika Donalds, chairman of the group School Choice Movement, praised DeSantis as “a leader who embraces the big and bold.”

She argued that public education is not a system of schools, administrators, school boards and teacher unions, but “an ideal” that helps children succeed. “How that is accomplished, should not matter,” Donalds said.

Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning applauded the governor’s goal of wanting success for all children, but expressed concern about the approach. He noted that students who receive tax credit scholarships do not have to take state tests to measure their progress. Until legislation is put forward, it’s unclear whether the new program would be subject to the same accountability public schools face.

“Wouldn’t you want to make sure you’re getting a return on your investment?” Browning asked. “You’ve got to level this playing field.”

The Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg was among those to praise the proposal. He and several other African-American ministers attended the governor’s announcement in Orlando.

“Without the scholarships, (schools) would not get what they need and children would not get what they require,” Sykes said. “There are great education challenges in south St. Pete. But everyone is pulling together to try to help. Key to that is the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.”

According to the program’s latest annual report, the amount of individual tax credit scholarships ranged from $6,343 to $6,920 during the 2017-18 school year.

Step Up For Students, the primary funding organization for the tax credit scholarships, has received more than 80,000 applications for 2019-20, outpacing the number who lined up in advance of the current school year.

Just two weeks ago, DeSantis made good on his pledge to eliminate the waiting list for Gardiner Scholarships, a state-funded savings account program for students with certain disabilities. He added $19 million to his budget request to fully fund the program.

The Gardiner Scholarship, established in 2014, is one of two education savings programs funded with state tax dollars. The other, established in 2018, provides $500 reading scholarships to students who did not score at grade level on the Florida Standards Assessment for language arts. Other proposals to create similar savings accounts in 2011, 2013 and 2017 did not make it out of legislative committees.

Former state senator John Legg was the main sponsor of the Gardiner Scholarship legislation, a measure that was able to pass despite a 2006 state Supreme Court case (Bush vs. Holmes) that deemed state-funded school vouchers unconstitutional. That’s because it was Senate president Andy Gardiner’s sole priority bill in that session, which helped move it along, Legg said.

The program also attracted support because it targeted a specific group of students that needed extra help, winning support from enough Democrats to become law.

“That swayed a lot of folks, even folks who on principle don’t like school choice,” Legg said, adding that even district superintendents acknowledged their schools didn’t always offer the services these students needed.

DeSantis’ proposal appears to call for creation of another state-funded account.

In contrast to the ruling that struck down school vouchers, the courts have ruled that tax credit scholarships are not state-funded because the money never enters government coffers.

Legg, who serves on the Step Up For Students board, said many school choice advocates want to see another lawsuit with the newly conservative Supreme Court membership. At issue in the first case was the constitutional mandate that Florida provide for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.”

After 15 years, Legg said, the definition of “uniformity” in education appears to have changed. Nearly half of Florida’s students in public schools use some option outside their neighborhood assigned school, he noted, and many schools offer academies and approaches that make them different from others in the public system.

The question before the court could turn on whether “uniform” means access, type of academic program, funding or some other aspect of education.

“I think people are hoping for a lawsuit,” Legg said, “so the court can weigh in on what is that type of uniformity.”