The Phoenix Flyer

DeSantis plan: FL families could be well over poverty threshold and still get public dollars for private school

By: - February 19, 2019 8:00 am

School entrance sign. Photo, CD Davidson-Hiers

Gov. Ron DeSantis’s proposed school voucher expansion across Florida is not targeted specifically for poor families – which have historically been beneficiaries of the programs that allow students to attend private schools with public dollars.

New details emerging about the governor’s “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program” — proposed last week– show students could be eligible for a “scholarship” (voucher) to attend private school if their family’s household income is as high as 265 percent of the federal poverty level.

That would be roughly $68,000 for a family of four, according to 2019 figures from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services — more than double the federal poverty guideline of $25,750 for a family of four.

That figure also would be more than the median household income in Florida and the United States, which has been below $60,000 in recent years, according to U.S. Census data. Other states, too, are starting to make middle-class families eligible for vouchers.

Florida has an assortment of “scholarships” (vouchers) now, for disabled kids, students with special needs, students who have been bullied and kids who need help with reading.

DeSantis’s new proposal would be an unprecedented expansion of the “scholarships” (vouchers) across Florida, allowing even more students to attend private schools at public expense. The plan is likely to attract lawsuits that would climb to the Florida Supreme Court, potentially overturning a 13-year-old court ruling that blocked expansion of school vouchers.

Under DeSantis’s proposal, the state would allow for some 14,000 students to get scholarships in 2019-20.  But the program would grow each year after that, allowing for 1 percent of the students enrolled in Florida public schools to get scholarships. Currently, that would be about 28,000 kids.

And unlike the way some other scholarships are financed, the new Equal Opportunity program would be funded the way traditional schools are funded, using general revenue dollars largely from sales taxes as well as other pots of money.

The scholarship amounts would be about the same as the amount spent per pupil in each of Florida’s school districts. The statewide per-student average is about $7,400 this academic year.

Other new details in the governor’s proposal include requiring private schools to test students who get the scholarships in Grades 3 to 10 yearly. The private school could use, for example, one of the exams given to public students across Florida.

It’s not clear which test – reading, math, or science? The test results would be given to parents, and private schools must annually report the scores of the scholarship students. However, a “state university,” rather than the Florida Department of Education, apparently would report the test results.

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.