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K-12 Scholarship Programs Could Take 8,000 Students Out Of Traditional Public Schools By 2023

Credit NeONBRAND / Unsplash

The Education Estimating Conference takes a detailed look at factors that will influence enrollment, for better or worse, in Florida’s public schools. At its most recent meeting, the committee found the state’s scholarship programs will have the biggest impact.

Its members represent various government entities. Of course there are several from the Department of Education, the Governor’s office and the State’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research. But they are all trying to quantify how measures from the previous Legislative Session will impact public school enrollment.

This year, they say Florida’s K-12 scholarship programs will weigh most heavily. The conference predicts collectively the programs will take more than 3,000 students out of public schools in the coming year, and more than 8,000 through 2023.

Elisabeth Goodman, with the EDR, explains one such scholarship has such high demand its waitlist has been halted. The Gardiner Scholarship, which served more than more than 10,000 students last school year, outgrew its previous funding mechanism. It is a scholarship meant for students with a wide variety of intellectual and physical disabilities, and can be used for private school tuition.“They had to cut off the wait list. That’s the reason why the wait list is what it is, because they stopped it,” Gardiner said. “They decided we will not be able to go and fund all these students, so let’s stop with the wait list process. And they opened up the interest list.”

The program had been funded through general revenue, but the Florida Sales Tax Credit Scholarship will kick in to begin funding Gardiner scholarships in 2019-20.

One mega-education bill, HB 7055, expanded the scope of how Gardiner funds can be used. As a result, the conference predicts that will attract more applicants. The passing of 7055 also saw the creation of Florida’s Hope Scholarship, which provides money for students who have experienced bullying or harassment to transfer to a private or charter school.

Goodman says experiencing any of the following at school could qualify a student as a recipient: Incidents include battery, harassment, hazing, bullying, kidnapping, physical attack, robbery, sexual offenses, sexual harassment, sexual assault,  sexual battery, threat or intimidation and fighting at school.

DOE estimates about 7,000 Hope Scholarships will be awarded in its first year. It is funded through a program allowing car buyers to contribute $105 of their motor vehicle tax to the program.

Votes for HB 7055 caught the eye of education stakeholders around Florida – including the statewide teachers union. The Florida Education Association has revived its practice of issuing ‘report cards’ to legislators. They score lawmakers based on how their votes line up with the organization’s interest.

Joanne McCall, the FEA’s president, listed scholarships and vouchers as just part of the main criteria looked at in giving a grade. A vote for 7055 didn’t allow for anything above a C grade.

“We focused on bills that would expand and create new vouchers for students to attend private schools,” McCall said, going on to list other metrics her organization used. She says items in 7055 were “detrimental to public schools, traditional public schools.”

In the Florida House, 47 republicans got a grade of F on the FEA report card, while only a select few Democrats dipped below an A or B grade. Meanwhile, 16 Senate Republicans received an F, and no Democrats failed.

Superintendents and other educators around the state watch enrollment like a hawk, as each seat that’s filled in a traditional public school comes with that student’s funding. The state will spend about $7,400 per student for the 2018-19 school year.

Copyright 2018 WFSU

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.