By Jacksonville Today
When Duval Schools start back next week, students from three previous Northside elementary schools will join together at Jacksonville’s brand-new consolidated Rutledge Pearson Elementary. While the district hails the new school as an exciting milestone, the trend of combining neighboring schools is likely to accelerate if enrollment continues dropping.
Just 68% of Duval County’s school-age children attended district-run public schools last school year. District budget forecasts anticipate the number of traditional, “full-time equivalent students” will dip below 100,000 this school year, a 9% drop from five years ago. (Full-time equivalent, or FTE, students is a calculation that determines state funding.)
That number could fall further under Florida’s new universal school voucher expansion, HB 1, signed into law in March by Gov. Ron DeSantis. HB 1 removes income restrictions and enrollment caps for private school scholarships. Proponents celebrate the expansion as giving families more personalized education options, but opponents criticize it as handouts for families who could already afford private school.
The loss of funding that comes with expanded vouchers and kids’ leaving schools looms as Duval Schools searches for its next superintendent – who will inherit a district that’s working to retain students.
For the upcoming school year, the first with universal vouchers, there’s already been at least a 50% increase in the number of Duval students who will receive private school vouchers compared to last year, according to data from scholarship distributor Step Up for Students. Duval Schools loses state money for every student who drops out of district-run schools, putting a greater financial strain on their fixed costs.
Duval’s vouchers are mostly funded through the county’s state’s education dollars. This year they make up about $124 million of Duval County’s state funding, about 16%, even though just 10% of Duval’s FTE are voucher students. The state did set aside some extra money for each county this school year to offset the uptick in voucher costs — about $25 million for Duval — but local funds are making up an increasing portion of the district’s budget.
In recent years, the drop in district-run school students has been largely driven by rising charter school enrollment. About 23,000 Duval students — that’s 15% of district-eligible kids — attended independently operated public charters last year, double the number from a decade ago. Prior to universal vouchers, private school enrollment had stayed relatively constant in Duval, dropping from 19% 20 years ago to 17% of the county’s school-age students last year.
Florida’s New Universal Education Vouchers: A Guide for Parents
As school starts this month, thousands of private school families will benefit from the state’s newly expanded school voucher program. Known as Florida Empowerment Scholarships and Florida Tax Credit Scholarships, the vouchers are newly available to all Florida K-12 students.
Florida’s school voucher program has existed since 1999, but this year, all students are now eligible for private school scholarships of about $7,700 (the exact amount varies by grade level and county ). Any leftover money after paying tuition can go toward other education expenses, like private tutoring. Homeschooled students can also now access state money toward their education, but those scholarships are limited to 20,000 students this school year.
Florida also has a long-standing voucher program for private school students with disabilities, which is getting some extra funds to bring down waitlists, according to the state. A $750 transportation scholarship for students who go to a public school other than the one in their neighborhood, like a magnet or charter, will also remain in place.
Florida’s Department of Education uses the term “scholarship” for all of these options. Nationwide, most policy experts use the term “voucher” for public funds going toward private schools, so Jacksonville Today is using these two terms interchangeably in this guide.
All K-12 students who are Florida residents are now eligible for a private school voucher – called a Family Empowerment Scholarships – and there is no cap on the number of students who can get one.
Florida’s Department of Education and Gov. Ron DeSantis have emphasized that priority should be given to students whose “household income does not exceed 185% of the federal poverty level” or who are in foster care. But when Jacksonville Today asked scholarship distributor Step Up for Students how it implements this prioritization, Director Doug Tuthill said the provision is largely symbolic.
“I think it was a signal to the public that they still want to make sure that they’re taking care of these kids,” Tuthill said, “Even though, in fact, I think every child that qualifies will be funded.”
Read the full article here: Florida’s new universal education vouchers: A guide for parents | Jacksonville Today | NewsBreak Original