Gov. DeSantis tells Miami crowd he wants to end FTC waitlist

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school choice
Gov. DeSantis speaks Friday at Miami Adventist Academy. He announced a new scholarship program for low-income families.

MIAMI — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told a crowd at Greater Miami Adventist Academy on Friday that he wants to create a state-funded program that would help reduce the number of families on a waiting list to receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) for lower-income families.

“I’m asking the Legislature to build off the tax credit scholarship success,” the governor said.

DeSantis proposed establishing an “equal opportunity scholarship” funded in the state budget to ensure that demand from lower-income and working class parents for educational choice can be met. The FTC currently serves nearly 100,000 lower-income students, making it the nation’s largest such program. However, about 13,000 students are on a waiting list to receive scholarships.

Reiterating a pledge he made in Orlando earlier Friday, DeSantis said the new state-funded program would help students get into environments where they will best be able to learn. The new program would provide scholarships in the same amount as the FTC, and the program’s enrollment would be capped at 14,000 students in the first year.

The announcement was met with applause from the crowd of about 700, which included Greater Miami Adventist students and faculty, media, policymakers and local black and Hispanic faith leaders; two-thirds of FTC students are black or Hispanic.

In a press release earlier Friday, the governor’s office provided more detail to the proposal. It said funding for the scholarship program would come from the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), and that the scholarship award amount would be a slight discount of the district average per-student funding in the FEFP, allowing funding to follow the student. The maximum number of students eligible to receive a scholarship would be equivalent to 0.5 percent of statewide public school enrollment for the first year, providing opportunities for approximately 14,000 students. Each year thereafter, the number of eligible students would increase by an additional 1 percent of statewide public school enrollment.

The FTC program (administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog) helps lower-income families pay for private school tuition or transportation costs to an out-of-district public school. A recently released study by the Urban Institute showed that students on the program are enrolling and completing college at higher rates than their public school peers.

“Even today, there are people in Florida who want to end the scholarship. As long as I’m governor, we’re going to have this scholarship,” DeSantis said to big applause. “If things are working, stick with it and build up that success.

In 2018-19, enrollment in the FTC program dropped for the first time in 14 years. In the preceding 13 years, the average annual enrollment increase was 20 percent. The enrollment dip was due to slower growth in corporate contributions, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Demand for the program remains strong. Parents for more than 170,000 students had started applications by the time Step Up halted the application process in June.

Step Up has already awarded 76,980 scholarships for 2019-20, approximately 20,000 students ahead of last year. Another 12,505 new students have started applications since the process opened Feb. 8. Since Monday new students are starting applications at a rate of more than 1,000 a day.

“The scholarships these students get cost less than it would take to educate a student (in a traditional public school),” DeSantis said. “Look at the results. It’s been successful and taxpayer-friendly. The best authority is when the parents vote with their feet. If the scholarship wasn’t successful, you wouldn’t have parents waiting in line to get one.”

The governor’s words inspired hope in parent Janeris Marte, mother of Aleyna, a first-grader at Beacon Hill Preparatory School, a private school in Miami Gardens.

“Unfortunately, paperwork involving Aleyna’s transition from foster care to our home put her on the waitlist for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship,” Marte said. “This put our family in a difficult position. I am unemployed and my husband is a mechanic – we are not well off by any means. But we were determined to give Aleyna the best – we enrolled her anyway.”

Marte said Beacon Hill administrators have been patient, often allowing the family to be months behind on tuition payments. She doesn’t see their neighborhood school as an option, because the environment is unsafe.

“Schools like Beacon Hill give children like Aleyna brighter hope,” Marte said. “Ending the waiting list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship would help so many families.”

Had funding been available in 2018-19, nearly 70,000 more students could have been awarded, Step Up President Doug Tuthill recently told the Senate Education Committee. Step Up shut down the scholarship application process last spring when it became apparent that demand could not meet supply, Tuthill said.

Maria Lancheros, mother of 14-year-old ninth-grader Ashley Hurtado, explained to the crowd why the scholarship has been important for her family. A single mother originally from Colombia, Lancheros spoke in Spanish and Ashley, an aspiring doctor who attends St. Brendan Catholic High School, translated.

“I am raising Ashley as a single mother,” Lancheros said. “I clean houses for a living, so without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, I would not have been able to afford tuition to her private school. “I applied for the (FTC) Scholarship before Ashley entered first grade, and I am so glad she was accepted. I wanted to make sure she was in a good educational environment because the schools in our neighborhood are bad. There’s a lot of drugs and bad influences.”

Lancheros said her older daughter, Catherine Villamir, 28, helps her clean houses to support Ashley. However, Catherine is ill and needs a liver transplant.

“The scholarship means more to us now than ever,” she said. “I will work until my dying day until Ashley accomplishes everything she wants to accomplish.”

Prominent guests at Friday afternoon’s event included state Rep. James Bush III (D-Miami); Newall Daughtrey, the city manager of Opa Locka; and T. Willard Fair, president of the Miami Urban League.

When a reporter asked the governor to respond to a Democratic Party statement that the new scholarship program was merely a plan “to divert public money to special interest groups,” DeSantis turned to the assembled faith leaders, public officials, and parents behind him and asked, “Does this look like an interest group to you?”