If Florida’s Catholic schools and their 84,000 students were part of a public school district, they’d be the ninth largest in the state. They’d generate scores of news stories every year. Have powerful interests battling on their behalf. Win praise for saving taxpayer money. But like other private schools, they’re often out of sight, out of mind.
In Tallahassee Tuesday night, Florida’s Catholic school superintendents led a meet-and-greet with a handful of state lawmakers to send a polite but direct message: Don’t forget about us.
“The impact of Catholic education in our state can never be underestimated,” Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee told about 100 people gathered on the top floor of the Capitol.
Catholic schools have long enjoyed a reputation for serving low- and middle-income families and setting a high academic bar. For taxpayers, they offer financial benefits, too. Florida’s Catholic schools save the state at least $435 million every year, according to new calculations by the Florida Catholic Conference. That’s how much it would cost to educate Catholic school students in public schools, less the cost of publicly funded school choice programs.
Tuesday’s event, which included brief remarks by Gov. Rick Scott, was not a knock on public schools.
The conference estimates 300,000 Catholic students are being educated in Florida public schools. Keeping those schools strong is a must.
But on occasion, the low profile of Catholic and other private schools can result in unintentional hits, said James Herzog, the conference’s associate director for education. Legislative changes last spring to how Florida Virtual School and dual enrollment is funded, for example, inadvertently resulted in higher costs for some private schools and their students. “I don’t think it was fully considered how it would affect private schools,” Herzog said.
The vast majority of the state’s Catholic schools participate in the state’s three publicly funded, private choice programs – vouchers for pre-kindergarten, McKay scholarships for students with disabilities and tax credit scholarships for low-income students. (The latter is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) Because of those programs, Florida Catholic schools are defying a national decline in Catholic school enrollment, instead seeing modest upticks in each of the past two years.
The conference wants to see two changes to those programs during the next legislative session. One: eliminating the requirement that students in grades 6-12 must have been enrolled in public schools before they’re eligible for tax credit scholarships. And two: More money for Pre-K, where funding has been cut or flat several years in a row.
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, one of the lawmakers in attendance, said it’s vital to continue expanding those choice programs, but not just for the sake of Catholic schools. “If we’re going to meet the future needs of society, we have to have a viable private, parochial and faith-based education system” in addition to public schools, he said. “We should be fighting for all children … not just public, not just private.”
Getting there, though, may mean Catholic schools have to do something new: Promote themselves.
All the Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Miami have 1-to-1 ratios between students and computing devices, said Kim Pryzbylski, the superintendent there. But many parents don’t know Catholic schools often offer everything public schools do and then some.
“We need to be much more vocal about our story,” Pryzbylski said. “In this society, people like to make choices. We need to make sure we’re a viable choice, and that people know we’re a viable choice.”