LAUDERDALE LAKES, Fla. – New Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used the backdrop of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to underscore his commitment to expanding educational choice, addressing an audience at a predominantly black, all-boys private school where every student is a recipient of a state-backed choice scholarship.
DeSantis told about 200 members of the Piney Grove Boys Academy community – students, parents, educators and other supporters – that he supports a definition of public education that includes publicly funded options beyond district schools.
“We don’t want somebody’s potential to be limited because they happen to live in this zip code or because their parents only have this much income,” DeSantis said, flanked on stage by 25 students in crisp khakis, navy blazers and ties. If a parent can use public funding to find a school that works for their child, “Why would we oppose that if it works?”
DeSantis also pledged to work with lawmakers in finding a solution to bridge a yawning gap between supply and demand with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, the largest private school choice program in the nation.
“I would like to eliminate the wait list so that every parent has the ability to make these choices,” he said. “And that will be a priority for me in this next legislative session.”
The program (administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog) is funded by corporate contributions and serves nearly 100,000 students, 68 percent of them black and Hispanic. It has steadily grown since its creation in 2001. But this year, it hit a wall in fundraising, resulting in the first enrollment dip in years and leaving roughly 13,000 students on a waiting list. Parents for more than 170,000 students had started applications by the time Step Up pulled the plug on the application process in June.
Being on the wait list is “extremely hard,” said Ghismide Saint Jean, a waitress who addressed the audience and whose son Josiah, 6, attends St. James Catholic School in North Miami. “I’m living paycheck to paycheck. Although it’s my choice to put him in that school, I have to work six days a week, most days 10 to 14 hours a day, and I’m not sure I can continue to afford it.”
Saint Jean said she chose St. James over the neighborhood public school because she wanted a smaller setting with less disruptions and more one-on-one attention for Josiah, who struggles with asthma and a damaged lung and has been hospitalized six times this school year. She said the sacrifice is enormous but worth it, given Josiah is already reading at a second-grade level. “I can’t imagine Josiah being in another school,” she said. “And neither can he.”
Celethia Davis of Jacksonville, another wait-list parent, said she found a safe, faith-based, college-prep school that would be perfect for her daughter, Brianna, who is in sixth grade. But she can’t enroll her without a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. For now, Brianna continues to struggle in her neighborhood school where, Ms. Davis said, pausing to hold back tears, “She told me she’s not happy.”
“It felt great being able to let someone in leadership know how I feel and what’s going on with my daughter,” she said after the event. “I don’t want her to just be a number. I was nervous. I really believe the governor is going to do what he said.”
Started in 2013, Piney Grove Boys Academy is one of roughly 2,000 private schools that participate in Florida’s array of choice scholarship programs. It serves 85 students in grades K-12 (54 of them with tax credit scholarships). It’s affiliated with Piney Grove Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in Broward County. Its principal is a veteran public school educator, himself the son of a former public school principal of the year in Florida who helped develop and open the school.
DeSantis has made no bones about his support for expanding educational options. He campaigned on it. He pushed for appointment of former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a choice stalwart, as Florida’s new education commissioner. And he stressed the issue in his Jan. 8 inaugural address, saying, “Floridians differ in their dreams for their children. … We need an education system that offers the maximum amount of choice.”
Monday’s audience included a number of prominent guests, including state Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, chair of the Senate Education Committee, and three Democratic state representatives: James Bush III of Miami, Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville, and Patricia Williams of Fort Lauderdale. Former state House member Hazelle Rogers, now mayor of Lauderdale Lakes, was also on hand.
“I think what the governor’s visit highlights today is the need to fulfill the promise to those kids on the waiting list,” Diaz told redefinED. “If we’re saying no child, regardless of their zip code or socioeconomic status, should be stopped from having the access to the best educational options for that child, then we need to put our money where our mouth is and find a solution to this … and I think the governor is committed to that.”
Assistant editor David Hudson Tuthill contributed to this report.