In a historic expansion of school choice in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed into a law a bill that creates a new, state-funded voucher program.
DeSantis officially signed the legislation before a passionate crowd of students, educators, lawmakers and school choice supporters at William A. Kirlew Junior Academy, a private K-8 school, in Miami Gardens.
The Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), the new state-funded program approved last month by both chambers, will eliminate a waiting list of 13,000 families seeking a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) for their children and expand school choice options for thousands of others. The new scholarship, which will be funded through the Florida Education Finance Program rather than by private corporate contributions like the FTC, will accommodate 18,000 students in the first year and add roughly 7,000 additional students in future years.
“I personally believe as a matter of principle and philosophy that parents know what’s best for their kids, they know the right environment, and that if you empower parents regardless of income that the parents ultimately can make the best decision,” DeSantis told the crowd of about 250.
“But even if I didn’t believe that, I’ve got to look at the facts and say the tax credit program has been successful,” the governor said, citing a recent Urban Institute study that showed the low-income, mostly minority students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship are 43 percent more likely to enroll in four-year colleges than like students in public schools, and up to 20 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. “That’s why you have a waiting list. What this will do in one fell swoop, you’re offering more opportunity for thousands and thousands of low-income families here in the state of Florida. That’s a big, big deal.”
Sen. Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah Gardens), who chairs the Senate Education Committee and sponsored a bill to create the new program, thanked students in Miami, saying, “This day is really all about you.”
“In 2012 when I got elected to the Legislature, to the House, I envisioned a day like this,” Diaz said. “It was a goal for me.”
Before the bill was signed, several students and school choice advocates expressed their thanks to DeSantis and lawmakers who championed the effort.
Ketia Salvador said it was her dying sister’s wish that her daughters, Camya, a fourth-grader, and Camila, a seventh-grader, continue to attend William A. Kirlew Junior Academy on the FTC scholarship.
“She told me from her hospital bed she had a feeling she would not be around much longer,” Salvador said. “She asked me to help her fill out the scholarship application, so we did that together. When the letter came saying Camya and Camila’s application had been accepted, I was so happy. I rushed to the hospital to show my sister the letter. She couldn’t open her eyes, but she said, ‘I’m so happy.’ She died only two weeks after that.”
Salvador said that while Camya and Camila continue to grieve their mother’s death in January, they have stability at William A. Kirlew.
“Thank you for making their mother’s dream for them possible, and thank you for helping me ease her mind in her last weeks,” Salvador said.
Kristal Gordon, a graduating senior at B. Wright Leadership Academy in Miami, described how the FTC scholarship helped her complete high school in one year – due to confusion regarding her birth certificate, she unknowingly began the ninth grade as an 18-year-old.
She said the FTC scholarship enabled her to attend B. Wright Leadership Academy, where she says she received the individualized attention and motivation she needed to succeed. She doubled up on her classes and attended night school and summer school.
“The teachers and staff at B. Wright have been amazing,” said Gordon, an aspiring paramedic who plans to attend Florida International University. “They genuinely cared about me, when others would have given up on me. Without them, graduating would be impossible. They pushed me, and at times I wanted to give up, because it was hard.
“I would tell our administrator, Sophia Roberts, ‘I can’t do it, Ms. Sophia!’ And she would tell me, ‘Don’t ever say you can’t.’ If they hadn’t pushed me, I would’ve stopped long ago. … I wouldn’t be there without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. So I’m very excited to see the new Family Empowerment Scholarship give more students the opportunity I had.”
Pastor Mark Coats of Grace of God Baptist Church and director of Grace Christian Preparatory School in Miami characterized the scholarship as “a historic expansion of school choice in Florida.” He noted about half of the 100 students at school are on the waiting list and are being educated for free – a financial challenge to smaller, private schools like Grace Christian.
“It’s important to give kids from underprivileged areas the same opportunities to receive a good education as kids in privileged areas do,” he said. “The Family Empowerment Scholarship expands those opportunities.”
State Rep. James Bush (D-Opa Locka), one of six House Democrats who voted in support of the new scholarship, said 288 families on the waiting list were from his district.
“I stand here today because this is the right stand to take for our children,” said Bush, a retired school teacher. “This bill is not about public vs. private education. This is about a team effort to make sure that every child in the state of Florida, no matter what ZIP code they are from, they will have the same choice of getting a quality education.
“If we’re going to turn around education, and especially in the African-American community, the low-income community, parents must be empowered. The governor has started this by giving us an opportunity to give 18,000 more students in our neighborhoods to take advantage of these scholarships.”
DeSantis touted the new scholarship earlier Thursday during stops at The Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville, and Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy in St. Petersburg.