Par­ents turn to pri­vate schools

Schol­ar­ships geared to low-in­come fam­i­lies

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Caitlin R. McGlade Staff writer

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.

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