Florida Parents Increasingly Prefer Private Schools to Public Schools

Florida's education system is in a massive state of flux at the moment. District superintendents are going to war with members of the state Board of Education over school ratings, the number of failing schools is on the rise and the man charged with turning the whole thing around, Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, was forced to resign last week after an Associated Press story used his emails to show that he might have changed the grade of a charter school that was run by an influential GOP donor in Indiana.

It's no wonder that an increasing number of parents are throwing up their hands at the whole thing and are instead exploring other options. According to Kathleen McGrory of the Miami Herald, many are using the state's tax credit scholarship program to enroll their children in private schools. In 2012, the program showed a year-on-year increase of more than 25% with 51,000 children applying and receiving the scholarship funds.

The dramatic spike was the result of 2012 legislation increasing the amount of tax credits available. The bill prompted corporations to donate more money.

There was also a surge in parent demand, said Doug Tuthill, of Step Up for Students, the non-profit that administers the scholarships.

"So many parents are interested that we're struggling to keep up," Tuthill said.

Observers say the record growth is likely to foreshadow new legislation aimed at further expanding the program.

"I would be willing to entertain a gradual increase," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity.

Popularity among parents doesn't mean that the scholarship program doesn't have its critics. Democratic lawmakers have been fighting first the program's adoption and then its expansion since 2002, and any move to further lift the cap on it this year is likely to meet with more of the same.

Chief among the critics is state Senator Dwight Bullard of Miami, who believes that allowing corporations to reduce their tax burdens via scholarship funds shortchanges public education and other institutions that are in desperate need of funds. In the end, Bullard explains, it is the families that have so eagerly embraced the scholarship programs who are losing out. Public schools in Florida operate under stringent state standards that don't apply to the private schools, reducing oversight.

Still, parents are voting with their dollars, and they're increasingly voting for more choice.

The tax-credit scholarship program is part of a broader spectrum of school choice in Florida. The past two decades have seen the proliferation of magnet, virtual, and privately-managed charter schools, as well as programs that help children from low-income families and children with disabilities attend private schools.

"Parents are increasingly expecting to be able to chose their child's school," said Tuthill, a former teachers union president. "Our role in all of this is to try to make sure low-income families have an equal chance to participate" by helping them access private schools.

Tax-credit scholarships are worth $4,880 each and can be used at private schools that participate in the program. A family of four must earn less than $44,000 in annual income to qualify.

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