school choice

Pastor Robert Ward is the founder of Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental School in south St. Petersburg.

By Pastor Robert Ward

The Tampa Bay Times says it is “absurd” for Gov. Ron DeSantis to say spending public money on private school tuition is still public education.

The only thing that’s absurd is the Times’ selective scrutiny.

Florida has been spending billions of public dollars on private school tuition for years, through a variety of programs beyond the one the newspaper disparages. Yet the only time the Times sees a constitutional violation is when the governor proposes to use public money to expand learning options for children in poverty.

Has the Times ever thundered against use of state-funded Bright Futures scholarships at private and faith-based colleges? Has it ever waxed indignant about the public dollars that have been spent on VPK, which more than 100,000 4-year-olds use each year to attend private, and often faith-based, pre-schools? Why is it silent about the public dollars that have been spent on private school tuition through McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities and Gardiner Scholarships for students with special needs? Why is it okay with the Times when the state spends billions of public dollars on private school tuition for college students, for 4-year-olds, for students with autism and Down syndrome – but not okay when the governor proposes a similar program for low-income students, mostly of color?

There is no good answer.

In its thundering editorial on Feb. 19, “DeSantis redefines public education,” the newspaper chose to attack a new scholarship aimed at reducing the waiting list for a program that serves the most underprivileged students in our state. That program, the Tax Credit Scholarship, is providing private school options to 100,000 students whose average household income is $25,700. More than two-thirds are black or Hispanic and more than half live with only one parent. The ones who come directly from a public school were among the lowest academic performers from the schools they left.

Rather than recognize these struggling families, the Times instead turned to a rather selective listing of school choice supporters. Yes, former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos support Gov. DeSantis’s new scholarship program. But why would the newspaper ignore the masses of black and Hispanic parents who’ve been lining up for scholarships for years? Did its editors not see the parents of color who spoke alongside Gov. DeSantis last week? Did they not hear Shareka Wright, the Orlando garbage truck driver? Ms. Wright said she has to sometimes choose between paying tuition and feeding her sons so she can keep them in a school where they are safe and learning.

There are thousands of Shareka Wrights in St. Petersburg. Eight years ago, we founded Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental School to serve them. Now we are turning them away because we don’t have enough seats and there aren’t enough scholarships.

The Times says Floridians don’t know if schools like Mt. Moriah are succeeding “because private schools aren’t held to the same standards as public schools.” True, we aren’t held to the same standards. We are held to higher standards. If we don’t deliver the high-quality education our parents expect and deserve, our parents will leave. Until school choice scholarships came along, that wasn’t the case with our public schools.

Generation after generation, our students had to go to schools assigned to them by the district, whether they were working for them or not. We all know that far too often, they were not. Fewer than a quarter of black 10th-graders in Pinellas public schools could read at grade level last year. Since the state switched to the Florida Standards Assessment four years ago, the gap in reading proficiency between black students in Pinellas public schools and black students statewide has grown in every single tested grade. This is what one-size-fits-all education has brought us.

Contrast those results with the new Urban Institute study, which analyzed long-term outcomes with the Tax Credit Scholarship. Students on scholarship are 43 percent more likely than their peers in public schools to go to four-year colleges. They are 20 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. If they use the scholarship four or more years, they are 45 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. Why did the Times leave this out?

I’m no legal scholar. But it’s absurd to think a constitutional definition of public education that fails to acknowledge that one size does not fit all has a place in a state as diverse and dynamic as Florida. It’s also absurd to pretend that, in practice, Florida didn’t acknowledge this many years ago.

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Anne Hartley March 8, 2019 - 9:07 pm

“Students on scholarship are 43 percent more likely than their peers in public schools to go to four-year colleges. They are 20 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.” This statement is misleading. The UI study found that 12% of scholarship recipients graduated from college vs. 10% for students who stayed in public schools). It’s not a 20% increase. It’s a 2% increase. (They make it sound bigger by describing the 2% difference as a 20% increase.) College enrollment rates are higher, but taking college courses doesn’t affect a students’ earning potential as much as graduating.

Patrick R. Gibbons
Patrick R. Gibbons March 11, 2019 - 9:43 am

Hi Anne,

Thanks for your comment. Both statements are true. FTC students have a graduation rate that is 2 percentage points higher than their public school peers AND these students are up to 20 percent more likely to earn a bachelors degree.

Daniel March 12, 2019 - 1:36 pm

Why do scholarship students in private college preparatory schools advance higher than those of public schools?

Anne Hartley March 9, 2019 - 5:05 am

Google “The Ledger Pastor Tiger Kingdom Prep” and read Polk County Sheriff Judd’s horrifying account of a pastor who sexually abused his voucher students. This story was reported in the Orlando Sentinel’s Schools Without Rules series 15 months ago. The state has done nothing to ensure that these and other voucher students are protected. I respect Pastor Ward’s calling to help the children in his community, but we need to speak up in unified voice and act now prevent future cases like Kingdom Prep. to demand that the state hold private schools accountable, too. After the crises in the Catholic and Southern Baptist churches, creating opportunities for small, faith-based schools to set up in communities without oversight puts children at risk. That is unacceptable.

Patrick R. Gibbons
Patrick R. Gibbons March 11, 2019 - 9:48 am

Hi Anne,

The day before you published your comment this was headline news in Orlando:

There are, at our count, another 49 stories of public school teacher sexual misconduct in Florida from this school year alone. Why try to bludgeon an entire school sector because of a few bad people?

Daniel March 12, 2019 - 1:49 pm

Parochial schools are held to higher set of standards and morals. The standards of God are much higher than man’s standards. His standards are so high that if someone only thinks of having sex with another is considered adultery and if another hates someone it is murder in the eyes of God. Whereas, man’s standards say you have to be caught in the act. By human standards there are no absolute standards. However, with God, his ways are higher than ours and his thoughts are more vast than our own.

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