Orlando Sentinel - - Nation & World - Richard Tri­bou con­trib­uted to this story.


Pro­grams like school vouch­ers provide op­tions be­yond tra­di­tional neigh­bor­hood public schools to par­ents, Mor­reale said.

“The gover­nor un­der­stands we are mov­ing to­ward a new def­i­ni­tion of public ed­u­ca­tion in Florida,” he said.

Cre­ated in 2019, the Fam­ily Em­pow­er­ment Schol­ar­ship was in­tended as a re­lief valve for the Florida Tax Credit Schol­ar­ship, which is avail­able to low-in­come fam­i­lies. Nearly 110,000 stu­dents re­ceived schol­ar­ships from that pro­gram last year. DeSan­tis said be­fore the Fam­ily Em­pow­er­ment Schol­ar­ship was cre­ated, 15,000 to 20,000 stu­dents were on a wait­ing list for Florida Tax Credit Schol­ar­ship.

“We wanted those kids off the wait­list. We wanted to be able to em­power par­ents — many of them are low-in­come par­ents, many of them are sin­gle, work­ing moth­ers, to be able to have a mean­ing­ful choice and to be able to get their child in the best en­vi­ron­ment, so we did the Fam­ily Em­pow­er­ment Schol­ar­ship, which ef­fec­tively cleared the wait­list,” DeSan­tis said.

But un­like the Florida Tax Credit Schol­ar­ship, which is funded by companies that re­ceive dol­lar-for­dol­lar tax write-offs on their tax bills in ex­change for con­tri­bu­tions to the schol­ar­ship fund, the Fam­ily Em­pow­er­ment Schol­ar­ship is sup­ported di­rectly by the state.

“This schol­ar­ship is not de­pen­dent on tax-cred­ited do­na­tions from companies. The fund­ing from the schol­ar­ships comes from the state bud­get; there­fore, the fund­ing is not de­pen­dent on the profit of donors” Mor­reale said.

Though touted as a way to help young­sters from low-in­come fam­i­lies, some of the Fam­ily Em­pow­er­ment schol­ar­ships could be open to stu­dents from fam­i­lies of four earn­ing up to $81,000 a year. Lower-in­come fam­i­lies will con­tinue to re­ceive pri­or­ity to re­ceive the schol­ar­ships, as they did last year, how­ever.

The ex­pan­sion of the pro­gram was the sec­ond ma­jor piece of ed­u­ca­tion leg­is­la­tion DeSan­tis has signed this week. On Wed­nes­day, DeSan­tis signed a bill that prom­ises to boost pay for many public school teach­ers and make the min­i­mum salary among the high­est in the na­tion, he said. The goal is to have teach­ers, on aver­age, earn at least $47,500.

“We worked re­ally hard to be able to de­liver this year for stu­dents and fam­i­lies when it comes to ed­u­ca­tion in the state of Florida and it was a tough fight on a lot of this stuff,” DeSan­tis said Thurs­day.

State schol­ar­ships or vouch­ers are pop­u­lar with Florida par­ents. More than 167,000 Florida stu­dents used them to pay pri­vate school tu­ition last year at an annual cost of more than $1 bil­lion. But stu­dents who use vouch­ers do not take the same stan­dard­ized tests as their public school coun­ter­parts. And the re­sults of the tests they do take are not public, nor are their pri­vate schools’ grad­u­a­tion rates.

Florida’s voucher pro­grams ini­tially were touted by state lead­ers as a way to help stu­dents es­cape fail­ing public schools and to help aca­dem­i­cally strug­gling chil­dren at­tend pri­vate schools their par­ents could not af­ford. But last year, 34% of stu­dents new to the tax credit pro­gram had never been in public school, state doc­u­ments show.

And more than 40% per­cent who were in public school came from A-or-B rated cam­puses while less than 12% had at­tended D or F schools, ac­cord­ing to schol­ar­ship data col­lected by Florida State Univer­sity re­searchers.

Schol­ar­ship stu­dents also aren’t as poor as they once were, as the pro­grams have been opened up to some lower-mid­dle-class fam­i­lies, too.

Schools that take public dol­lars are also free to dis­crim­i­nate against LGBTQ stu­dents. An Or­lando Sen­tinel in­ves­ti­ga­tion ear­lier this year found 156 pri­vate Chris­tian schools with anti­gay views ed­u­cated more than 20,800 stu­dents with tu­ition paid for by state schol­ar­ships.

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