by Jeff Bergosh | Watchdog.org
The struggle for school choice is heating up to a roiling boil in the state of Florida, with 70,000 students and their parents as the unwitting, unwilling pawns in this conflict.
In 2014, the Florida legislature broadly expanded the eligibility criteria for an established statewide education choice initiative that serves primarily poor, minority students. This Florida tax-credit scholarship program is wildly popular among students and parents throughout the state, as many of these students and their parents have not fared well in their local public schools, having instead found success using these scholarships to attend private schools.
Florida corporations like the program because state corporate taxes on them are lowered directly proportionate to how much money they donate to the program.
Their logic for initiating this litigation looks like a clinic on maintaining message discipline. They decry the diversion of potential state revenue, loudly and often, re-stating their firm belief that if they just had ALL the taxpayer resources then they could “fix” ALL the schools.
Astonishingly, this coalition against student and parent educational choice has now managed to gain the support of the Florida branch of the NAACP in their quest to kill school choice for poor Floridians. In a bit of sad irony, the primary recipients of these scholarships are poor minorities, chiefly African-American students.
As a duly elected, public school board member that strongly supports school choice in a Florida school district that has nearly 1000 students utilizing these scholarships, primarily African-American students, I’ve paid very close attention to this issue.
“Please do not let the FSBA take away this awesome scholarship that my boys are utilizing” said one local parent to me in an email.
“[The tax credit scholarship program] has been a godsend for my grandchildren and I am asking for this program to continue” said another local resident.
Civil right icon Rev. H.K. Matthews wrote in a series of op-eds throughout Florida this month that the fight to preserve school choice in Florida reminded him of the fight for civil rights in Selma, Alabama in the 1960s. It must break his heart that the NAACP is siding with the special interests in this fight…
Why in the world is the NAACP working with these Florida establishment elites to kill a program that benefits tens of thousands of African-American students in this state?
Charles Thornton, the NAACP president for the Pensacola, Florida chapter, was circumspect on the issue when asked about it recently. Initially, Thornton said that “Before we spend money sending some kids to private schools, we should fix all the public schools first.” He then also argued that “if we allow those students to leave the public schools, those students who have these scholarships and are the better performing students, that will leave a greater concentration of low performing students, contributing to the struggles those urban schools already face.”
The idea that good students from good, caring families with limited economic resources should be held back from seeking better opportunities so that they will help support dysfunctional, failing public schools seems outlandish and self-serving. Waiting for 100% satisfactory levels of funding (whatever that is?) for all public schools before allowing parents and students to have expanded school choice is an unacceptable pre-condition.
This epic struggle between entities with divergent ideologies seems a lot like the famous starfish story.
This Florida tax credit scholarship program is like the old man walking up and down the beach, saving one starfish at a time by tossing them back into the water before they die of asphyxiation on a dry beach caught in an ebbing tide, all the while knowing he can’t save them all—but that he can save the ones in his hands.
The “Educrats” opposing school choice in Florida, including the NAACP, are the cynics saying “What are you doing, you foolish old man?” “There are too many starfish on this beach for you to save alone— you’re wasting your time!”
Common sense dictates that we ought try to save as many starfish as we can with as many approaches as possible, using every resource available. We’re doing this in Florida with a strong network of private school providers.
Locally, we have fine private schools that have accepted the challenge to teach struggling students under the Florida tax credit scholarship program. These schools are educating Florida students at about half the cost of what the state of Florida spends per pupil-and in the eyes of many parents these schools are doing a much better job than the public schools!
Colin Hendrickson runs three such schools in our local area. He and his wife, Johanna, have grown their program from one location and 12 students to three locations serving nearly 300 students in two counties from Pre-K through 12th grade. “Our growth has been exponential” Hendrickson stated when I spoke to him recently. “Parents are coming to us from word of mouth referrals.”
Colin described to me some of the attributes of his program that his parents and students appreciate. “They feel safe here and they are safe here. Parents are confident about the rigor of the curriculum, the quality of the learning environment, and the safety of the atmosphere here at Lighthouse Private Christian Academy [the academy run by the Hendricksons]. With our small classes and lots of one-on-one attention, our staff knows these kids by name, and parents really like that.”
When asked about the financial ramifications to his program if the tax credit scholarship is eliminated by the special interests in court, Hendrickson is less optimistic. “We have at least 120 students on the scholarship program, so if that goes away this will be a devastating blow to our school, costing us between $700,000 and $900,000– it could potentially shut us down. Lots of students would be uprooted and sent back to programs that are not meeting their needs, and that would be very sad to see,” Hendrickson said.
With students, parents, and schools caught in the crossfire, the court battle against school choice rages on in Florida courts. The future of 70,000 Florida students hangs in the balance.