Walk into a class at St. James Catholic School in North Miami, and you’re likely to see a room full of African-American kids. The school serves an area beset by poverty. The majority of students there receive financial assistance for tuition from the State of Florida.
Nadege and Charles Chery say without the help, they wouldn’t be able to send their daughter to St. James. The scholarship gives them academic freedom.
“I can pretty much take my kid anywhere, so that’s what I enjoy about making the choice myself in providing the education I feel is best for my child,” said Nadege Booz Chery, who is an alumnus of St. James and says it instilled strong Catholic values in her, which she wants her daughter to share.
It used to be called a voucher program, now it’s called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. It serves 67,000 students statewide, helping to pay tuition at more than 1,500 private schools.
“Parents should have the choice of where their children are educated, that should not be based on the location where they live,” said Kim Pryzbylski, Superintendent of the 62 schools run by the Archdiocese of Miami. “Both the child and the family benefit because the parents can choose the school that best fits the child’s needs.”
Since the program began in 2001, the State of Florida has diverted about $1.4 billion in tax money to help pay for private school education.
“This is public money that’s going to private, a lot of times for profit, religious institutions and so we do find that’s a big concern for us and it’s a problem,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats of United Teachers of Dade.
Several groups, including the teachers unions, the Florida School Boards Association, and the Florida Congress of Parents and Teachers have filed a lawsuit to end the FTC scholarship program. Besides the separation of church and state issue, the lawsuit claims private schools are unaccountable because their students don’t have to meet the same benchmarks that the public school kids have to meet, including state assessment testing.
“State standards, and we prepare them with certain state tests and we cannot compare if our public money is going to good use because you can't compare apples to oranges when there's no accountability,” said Hernandez-Mats.
The lawsuit’s backers also make the simple claim that there’s no need for vouchers anymore because public school districts have responded to the clamor for more choice by offering all kinds of options. Parents can choose from magnet and charter schools and special programs. The days of being forced to attend your neighborhood school are over; strict boundaries are a relic of the past. But parochial education is a different, shall we say religious experience, and if the lawsuit succeeds, it may become out of reach for low-income families.