DeSantis: New scholarship program would put parents “in driver’s seat”

Geoff Fox

Gov. Ron DeSantis, in an appearance Monday at Tampa Bay Christian Academy, championed legislation that would create a new scholarship program for students on a waitlist for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

TAMPA – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday reiterated his pledge to establish a state-funded program that would eliminate the 13,000 students on a waiting list to receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) for lower-income families.

Speaking at Tampa Bay Christian Academy, where 180 of the school’s 260 students (72 percent of whom are black or Hispanic) use the FTC scholarship, DeSantis renewed his support for providing more educational opportunities for Florida families.

“There are about 14,000 parents on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship waiting list and we need to answer those calls,” said the governor, who in a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January announced that ending the waiting list for scholarships would be a legislative priority.

“I’m very supportive of the tax credit scholarship in Florida,” DeSantis said Monday. “It gives parents the opportunity to find the right learning environment for their kids. Nobody knows what’s better for the kids than their parent, and not every child has the same type of needs. Florida is a big, diverse state, and parents should be in the driver’s seat.

“At the end of the day, I believe our country is at its best when people, no matter where they start, can succeed and do great things with their God-given talent. Everyone can succeed. They just need the right opportunities.”

The FTC scholarship serves more than 100,000 students statewide, with an average annual family income of $25,751. But this year, for the first time in 14 years, a slowing rate of growth in fundraising resulted in fewer students served than the prior year.

Yet demand for the scholarship remains strong. More than 145,000 students have started applications for the 2019-20 school year, and more than 90,000 scholarships have been awarded. About 55,000 are new applicants, up 45 percent from this time last year.

Jamie Prince, single father of Jamoy, a fifth-grader at Tampa Bay Christian, is among those on the waiting list. Prince spoke at Monday’s event, relating that Jamoy had been on the FTC scholarship since kindergarten, but was put on the waiting list this year. Prince now pays out-of-pocket for tuition while struggling to help family members in the Virgin Islands who are still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

“I want Jamoy to stay on this path so that, unlike me, he can go to college,” Prince said. “I want him to have a good life. I know it’s important for him to begin building that life now. I am asking you, please, help my son and the other children who are on the waiting list for a scholarship so that they can have the chance they deserve.”

Tampa Bay Christian Head of School Natasha Sherwood described the school as a “dedicated partner” with the local school district, but said public schools aren’t the right fit for every student.

“Studies show that the children who use the scholarship tend to be the poorest performers in the public schools when they leave,” Sherwood said.  “Once they find the right educational environment, they thrive.”

She cited an Urban Institute study released earlier this year that found that students on the FTC program are enrolling and completing college at higher rates than their public school peers.

Monday’s event, which started with a roundtable discussion between DeSantis, students, educators and parents, included a speech by Tampa Bay Christian student Samiya James, who spoke of the difference school choice has made in her life. She once struggled badly in school, but the senior is poised to become the first member of her family to attend college.

Samiya started attending Tampa Bay Christian in sixth grade. Without the FTC scholarship, she said, her family would not have been able to afford tuition to the private school.

“I remember clearly one meeting when I told Mrs. Sherwood that I didn’t care about graduating and might just drop out,” said Samiya, who wants to be a pediatrician. “She told me that TBCA would not let that happen. Mrs. Sherwood met with me, my mom and my grandma and we developed a plan for me to graduate. It wasn’t just about academics but about me as a person.

“Whether I liked it or not, that day I joined the volleyball and praise and worship teams. I also agreed to weekly meetings with Mrs. Sherwood or Mrs. Moldauer to check my grades. In these weekly meetings, I learned how much a zero can hurt your grade. I learned that sometimes I have to ask for help. I learned how to speak to people.”

Pastor Robert Ward of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in south St. Petersburg also spoke of the need for educational choice. He said he opened Mt. Moriah opened eight years ago because of the community’s high dropout rate.

“We were hearing from our congregation and others about how difficult it was for their children to fit in in certain public school environments,” Ward said. “These kids all came from different backgrounds and had different needs, so a one-size-fits-all system wouldn’t work for them. We know the district is doing all they can for our kids, but not every assigned school is going to fit each child.”

Without the FTC scholarship, Ward said, his school wouldn’t exist, as all 56 students at Mt. Moriah are on the scholarship.

“The scholarship is the only option so many of these parents have,” Ward said. “Without it, their children would remain in schools that are not a good fit for them. The scholarship not only gives these parents an alternative, it gives them a sense of hope – their desperate cry has been heard.”

The governor’s office in February released a proposal that served as an outline for Family Empowerment Scholarship bills currently pending in the House and Senate. Both would be funded with public dollars through the Florida Education Financing Program.

In the Senate, SB 7070 would allow about 15,000 low-income students to attend the private school of their choice in 2019-20. That number would expand each year thereafter by 1 percent of the state’s total public school enrollment. The Senate program would maintain the FTC income eligibility limit for families of 260 percent of the federal poverty line (which is $62,650 for a family of four).

The House version, HB 7075, would accommodate about 28,000 students in 2019-20, and like the Senate bill expand by 1 percent in following years. The House program would increase the income eligibility to 300 percent of the poverty line ($77,250 for a family of four) in the first year, then increase by 25 percent each year until it reaches 375 percent of poverty level ($96,563 for household of four). Families who earn up to 185 percent of the limit would receive priority for receiving the new scholarships.

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