School choice and vouchers: Should some FL middle class families attend private schools on public dollars?

By: - May 11, 2021 7:06 am

Students in a classroom. Credit: Getty Images.

The traditional justification for using public tax dollars to finance school vouchers is that struggling families shouldn’t be locked into substandard public schools just because they can’t afford tuition at presumably better private schools.

Should that privilege extend to solidly middle class families?

The Florida Legislature answered yes during its recently concluded regular session. It approved, and on Monday sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a bill (HB 7045) that would allow families earning 375 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible for private school vouchers.

According to the Federal Poverty Level Calculator, that would include a family of four earning about $99,375.

That makes sense to Melissa Siplin, principal of a private school in Tallahassee called Anchor Academy. All  the students there are “scholarship children,” she explained in an interview, meaning they rely on vouchers financed by public tax dollars to pay tuition.

Her school helps children by “meeting them where they’re at” with smaller class sizes and better options for kids with different learning styles. “Opening up the scholarship opportunities for higher income — it gives children, who are still pretty much middle class or lower-middle class, opportunity to go to a different school,” she said.

But for critics of these voucher programs, the expansion of voucher eligibility is too generous. Andrew Spar, president of statewide teacher union Florida Education Association, thinks that public dollars should go to public schools.

“A family of four making $100,000 a year is not a family I would say is struggling financially,” he told the Phoenix.

Of Florida’s 2.8 million K-12 school children, school choice scholarship programs served more than 195,000 students during the 2019-20 school year, according to a legislative staff analysis.

Families opt for private schools for many reasons. Some look for more specialized instruction for students with behavioral, mental, or physical disabilities. Some are displeased with their neighborhood school and want to attend a different one. Others seek religious instruction.

The bill condenses the number of scholarships Florida offers. Right now, two are available to some students with disabilities — the Gardiner Scholarship and the McKay Scholarship.

In addition, a Family Empowerment Scholarship focuses on families of low-income households. Only students from families whose income is less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which the bill analysis identifies as $79,500 for a family of four, qualify.

HB 7045 combines all three of those programs into the Family Empowerment Scholarship. While the bill says that families who make under 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (about $49,025 for a family of four) are first in line, the legislation would allow families at or under 375 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible.

Those are the families earning near-six-figure incomes.

“It’s not about low-income anymore,” bill sponsor Randy Fine, a Republican who represents part of Brevard County, said during legislative debate. “We are now creating that option for more people to make the right decision for them.”

Even higher-earning families could qualify if too few families participate. Should 5 percent of available scholarships go begging in any fiscal year, eligibility would expand to 400 percent of the poverty level. For that family of four, that would mean income of about $106,000.

Organizations like Step Up for Students, which helps administer these scholarships for Florida students, support HB 7045 and believe that “education is strengthened when parents have power to access the learning environments that work best for their children,” according to a written statement sent to the Phoenix.

Spar, of the FEA, questions the necessity to provide vouchers in this bracket.

“I fault no parent who wants to send their child to private school,” Spar said.

“But what’s happening here is that the [Florida] Constitution requires a free, high-quality public education. And this idea that we’re going to take dollars and divert it away from the public school in order to give it to people who already have a means to send their children to private school just doesn’t make sense.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.