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Leon Schools' long-term financial outlook is murky following a 2021 overhaul of school choice

Jessica Palombo

The Leon County School District is facing long-term financial headwinds in the form of school choice. More families are taking advantage of tuition assistance to send their kids to private schools or home school. And traditional public schools—and even charter schools—are left holding the bag.

The district anticipates a budget shortfall for the upcoming school year of around $2 million. Superintendent Rocky Hanna said the district can absorb the hit because of federal pandemic money, but that extra funding won’t last forever.

Hanna said enrollment in private schools and home schools will continue to grow, and he doesn’t fault parents for their choices. What he does fault is the state's Republican-led legislature for a myriad of changes that have cost Leon Schools some $11.5 million within the past few years.

"Republicans were methodical about how they approached this," Hanna said in an interview with WFSU News. "First it was McKay scholarships, kids with special needs. Who could argue with that?...then they moved to Hope scholarships and opportunity scholarships for poor kids and those of low socio-economic status. Who could argue against that?” 

Over time, the state added bullying to the list of ways to qualify for scholarships. It raised the cap on the amount of money businesses to could donate to fund the corporate tax scholarship program, informally known as school vouchers. Lawmakers also set the programs on a glide path so that revenue, and eligibility would automatically increase each year, allowing more and more families to apply.

The result: at the start of 2021, Florida had five different school choice programs, from the original McKay program for kids with disabilities, to the Gardiner Scholarship, the HOPE Scholarship for bullied kids and the regular Corporate Tax Scholarship Program for low to middle income families.

Last year state lawmakers decided to consolidate the programs and raised eligibility up to $100,000 a year for a family of four. Lawmakers also eliminated the remainder of a requirement that certain students previously had attend public school. The result hasn’t just been a loss for traditional schools—Hanna said some of the districts charter schools aren’t even full.

“Not only does it hurt us, it hurts our charters too," he said. "There are a number of charters operating at 50-60% capacity.”

In Florida, charter schools are considered public schools too, but with fewer regulations.

Choice advocates like Erika Donalds firmly believe that giving parents the final say in where their kids go to school is the best approach. In an interview with WFSU earlier this year, she outlined what many choice supporters see as the end goal: universal school vouchers—money given directly to parents, thus bypassing school districts altogether.

“I would like to see a lot more robust competition in the private school market targeted to public school students," she said. "If those options were available to every family, it would create a tremendous marketplace for parents to choose from.”

Yet even Donalds acknowledges the limitations of the "vouchers for all" idea. A big hurdle is transportation. Money alone doesn’t necessarily enable choice because not every parent has the ability to take their child to a school. Leon's Hanna says another issue is that not every parent will want to leave, or can, for a variety of reasons:

"For one, there parents of students who are absent parents. For two, students with profound needs that other schools aren't going to serve them—charter schools aren't going to serve them. Private schools aren't going to serve them. But the public school system, we never turn a child away, period."

During a recent district executive session Hanna said the idea of some permanent school closures and rezoning was raised—but transportation costs and other issues make those potential cost savings negligible.

Hanna acknowledged every family is different, and he said he knows decisions around education are personal, but as a Superintendent, he said, he’s got to look at the district as a whole—and weigh the good of the many, against the good of the few, The responsibilities of public schools, and the responsibilities of parents and the community. The lines, he says, keep changing.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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