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.