TAMPA - Gov. Ron DeSantis made a morning stop at a private Christian school in Tampa to make it absolutely clear that he favors legislation that would expand state-supported scholarships.
Addressing a sanctuary filled with children at Tampa Bay Christian Academy, DeSantis declared that “parents should be in the driver’s seat” when it comes to their children’s education. To the students, teachers and community supporters who sang three spirited hymns before he took the stage, DeSantis said, “Just know that as governor, I’ve got your back.”
Remarks from the governor, who ran on a platform of school choice, come midway through a legislative session that has seen bills in both houses that would expand what is now a corporate tax-credit system that raises money for families seeking a private education for their children. Enrollment in the program has more than doubled since 2011, dropping off slightly this year because of a lack of funding, not interest.
DeSantis said the program has a waiting list of about 14,000 students, which is why some lawmakers want to broaden it in a way that could use state budget dollars in addition to the tax breaks that donors now enjoy.
Such an expansion could bring about a legal church-and-state challenge, but DeSantis said he is not worried.
He maintains that public education goes far beyond schools that are run by government districts, but also includes charters, home-schooling and, in this case, the scholarships to private schools.
“To me, it’s a public scholarship. It’s just a matter of how it’s applied,” DeSantis said, answering questions after his appearance at the school. “We’re not just giving the money to a church. It’s the parent’s decision that’s taking the money there. I think it would be inappropriate to discriminate against a school that happened to be religious, because it’s the parent’s choice.”
DeSantis said the U.S. Supreme Court supports the ability to use state money to assist religious schools with out violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which says government cannot establish an official religion.
A 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision went against a school voucher plan that existed under Gov. Jeb Bush. But DeSantis said the current program is significantly different from the one that was challenged.
To critics who say such measures drain traditional public schools, DeSantis noted that most of his education initiatives are aimed at the traditional schools, including more money for teachers and an overhaul of the teacher bonus plan. While supportive of independently managed charter schools, DeSantis said he favors a “bad actors list" to guard against unscrupulous operators. “This is not a way to get rich quick,” he said, “It’s for your commitment to our kids.”
The setting on Monday was a school in North Tampa that opened in 1957 and took its current name in 1985. The school serves 260 students in grades kindergarten through 12. Of those, 180 receive the tax credit scholarships, said headmaster Natasha Sherwood. Another 24 get scholarships through the state’s McKay and Gardner programs for students with disabilities.
The student body is 32 percent Hispanic and 42 percent African American.
The audience heard from a parent who is on the waiting list for a scholarship from his son; and a student, now in her senior year, who plans to be the first in her family to attend college.
“We are educating many of the students in this room without any compensation,” Sherwood said. “We didn’t, and we don’t, want to turn any families away. But we can’t educate them for free forever.”