Parents turn to private schools
Scholarships geared to low-income families
A growing number of South Florida families are using public money to send their kids to private schools.
About 37,000 students in the region attend private schools on scholarships funded by state tax credits. That’s nearly four times as many as in 2010, despite little population change among schoolage kids.
Lawmakers have made the scholarships, which are geared toward lowincome families, easier to get and increased the amount of funding allowed to pay for scholarships.
Claudine Alcina Piquant uses the money to send her four children to the New Hope Learning Center in Tamarac. Although her family wasn’t zoned to attend a low-performing school, she said the private school offers amore intimate
learning environment with a religious bent.
With smaller class sizes, she said her kids get more one-on-one attention.
“A long time ago, private school was mostly for rich people that can afford it. But nowthe scholarship is helping the lower-income people have the opportunity to give their children that same education,” she said.
Students who use the scholarship tend to come from low-performing public schools, according to an annual report by the Florida Department of Education.
Parents apply for the $5,886 scholarship through Step Up for Students or the AAA Scholarship Foundation. The organizations award the money based solely on need. Families then seek out their private school of choice and it’s up to the school whether to admit their child.
“What we’re seeing is the vast majority of [the private schools] are willing to open their doors to kids who typically struggled the most in public schools,” said Ron Matus, director of policy and public affairs for Step Up for Students. “Aparent is not going to leave a school if their kid is doing great. These parents are looking for options because they’re at wits end. They’re looking for any placewhere their kid can get on the right path, and live the American Dream.”
More than 98,000 students statewide opt out of public schools through the program, attending more than 1,700 of Florida’s 2,500-plus private schools.
The average income of families on the scholarship is about 4 percent of the poverty level, or $24,000 a year for a family of four, Matus said.
But Debra Robinson, vice chair of the Palm Beach County school board, said the program spends money on private schools that are not held to the same level of scrutiny as public schools.
Students at private schools, for example, do not have to take state tests, and the schools are not required to hire certified teachers — although the vast majority are state-certified, said Jim Laws on of the Florida Coalition of Christian Private Schools Accreditation.
Supporters say the program helps those who want to consider all of the school choice options available to them. Magnet and charter schools offer free alternatives to the neighborhood public school, but parents may prefer a smaller or closer school.
“It’s really important to help parents find the school for them,” said Stacy Angier, principal of Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate. “I don’t see public schools as the bad guy and us as the good guy. I see that every child learns differently and every parent needs a best fit for their kid.”
Corporate donations fund the grants, but the state offers donors an equivalent tax break in return.
Florida has long been at the forefront of the school choice movement, first allowing charter schools in 1994 and then offering the tax credit vouchers in 2001. The program’s cap grew from $50 million to more than $560 million today and will increase to almost $700 million next year.
At Abundant Life Christian Academy, scholarship students frequently come in a grade below reading level and need extra attention to bring them up to speed, Angier said. The program also brings more diversity into the classroom, she said. Most students who participate are minorities.
When the program started, Angier had just four students on scholarships. Today almost 240 out of 360 kindergarten through eighth grade students came through the scholarship.
For public schools, the program’s popularity presents a challenge.
In Broward County, the number of students on scholarship went from about 1,900 in 2010 to about 8,900today. In Miami-Dade, program participation grew from about 7,150 to more than 25,000. And in Palm Beach County, from about 700 to 3,050.
Despite its rapid growth, the program takes just a fraction of the counties’ school-age populations. That’s important because schools get funding per student, so if a child leaves the system, so does the money.
Robinson, the Palm Beach County School Board member, said the scholarships are unfair because they require that students have parents willing and able to spend the time applying for the money and seeking the right private school.
“We have significant numbers of families who are not in the position to actively engage, whether that’s because they’re working twoor three jobs themselves or they have some issues that is compromising their ability to be a parent,” she said. “I just don’t accept that it’s OK to continue to add to this disparity of opportunity.”
Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said the program creates competition that pressures public schools to do better.
The district has launched about 100 magnet and specialty programs, from aviation to theater. Broward has also identified 22 low-performing schools that need to be turned around, he said.
“Not because of the tax credit, but because we have a moral obligation to improve schools that aren’t delivering what we should expect for our kids,” Runcie said.