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Florida's newly consolidated school choice program results in a $16m loss for Leon schools

Stacks of brightly colored books sit on a brown table
Craig Moore
WFSU Public Media
Books sit stacked on a table at Sabal Palm Elementary School, ready to be given out to school kids

Florida's multiple private and home school scholarship programs have been consolidated into one: the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Now that the change is fully in effect, local school districts like Leon are seeing what it really means for their bottom line.

The expanded eligibility for the private school scholarships—vouchers as they're often referred to—means the district will likely send up to $16 million to local private schools. Statewide, the figure is around $1 billion.

When lawmakers consolidated the school choice programs, they raised income eligibility levels and removed requirements that students had to previously attend a public school. That means families which may have always used private schools yet made too much money for the programs, now have access to them. The impact on school district budgets is worrying the budgeters who run the numbers.

“That’s a big concern from where we sit because our schools are not growing. They're not growing and that’s just a little scary," Naomi Coughlin, Leon's Budget Director, told school board members during a recent meeting.

Enrollment drops have accelerated during the pandemic due to a confluence of factors; families moving away, some choosing to keep kids home due to fear of getting sick, and others, who Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna says have "bought into the rhetoric coming from leadership." By that, he means Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"The rhetoric coming from leadership about what’s allegedly happening in our schools, some people buy into it," Hanna said. "They believe we’re actually teaching sex ed to second graders.”

Florida's Republican-led legislature approved several bills restricting how race, history, gender identity, and sexual orientation are discussed in schools under the guise of combating the so-called "WOKE" ideology and advocating for parental rights. DeSantis pushed for the measures and signed them into law. The restrictions are in place now for the upcoming school year and have spawned lawsuits over schools' decisions to revamp their LGBTQ guidance, remove such materials from classrooms and school libraries, and scour the supplemental materials teachers are using in their lessons for anything that has the potential to run afoul of the rules and spark a lawsuit.

If students who were previously attending private or home school show up in the district's classrooms, the state would technically return money to the district, but that would not occur before late December or January. Leon's budgeters are warning against banking on that to happen, given that a similar situation occurred last school year yet Leon schools received no additional compensation for the returned students.

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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