Does school choice sabotage public education in Florida?

Sarasota Luncheon Discusses School Choice

SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Is Florida leading the nation as a model for school choice, or does it sabotage public education?

This was the topic of discussion at Tiger Bay, a luncheon in Sarasota, Thursday.

New charter schools are popping up all over the state, but there’s still some dispute over whether or not state funding should be used for vouchers or scholarships to help pay for students to attend private schools.

Some say school choice hurts public schools, others say it’s crucial for children to succeed.

What do you think about school choice, scholarships and vouchers? A room full of community members at Tiger Bay had divided answers.

Fifty-seven voted thumbs up, while 50 chose thumbs down. Another 10 weren’t quite sure what to think, but the panelists stood firm in their opinions.

“When the people of Sarasota vote to increase their millage to improve the public school system here in Sarasota, which is an absolutely great thing, they’ve got to think about the billion dollars a year that the state of Florida is giving away to pervasively religious schools in a non-regulated voucher program," said Ron Meyer, an attorney for Florida education interests.

Meyer said in his opinion, school vouchers and scholarships give funding to private schools that are free to discriminate against children.

“On account of handicapped, on account of sexual preference and religion,” he explained.

The government offers vouchers or scholarship tax credits to help parents pay the private school tuition of low-income or disabled children who wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Advocates like Erika Donalds said public schools aren’t always a good fit for the needs of each individual child. She used her own son as an example.

“I put him in a private school that had completely different curriculum and his entire life changed in a day," said Donalds.

Now, she’s the CEO and president of the Optima Foundation, a non-profit that helps expand school choice options.

“We should support the parents that feel that they need the options for their children and not ask them to stay in an education situation that is not working for their child,” Donalds said. "I think there’s a lot of guilt involved when you leave the public school system as if you’re doing something bad to the community, when really, parents just want to do what’s best for their children.”

At the end of January, the House Education Committee approved a bill that would expand the number of students who can use those taxpayer-funded scholarships to attend private schools.

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