PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — The Florida Legislative Session starts next week and one of the biggest topics expected on the floor is the concept of universal school choice.
Both the House and Senate have proposed bills that would greatly expand the voucher program to help any student attend private school, regardless of income or ability.
But the measures are facing strong criticism from Democrats and watchdog groups who said the potential price tag could crush public education.
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Leaders in the School District of Palm Beach County said they know some version of the school choice legislation is going to pass. So for them, it’s about adapting and hoping for the best version possible.
Palm Beach County parent Scott Borden has a house divided. One daughter is in public school.
"She's thriving. She's doing everything that you would ask of a child in the public school system socially, academically," Borden said.
And now one in private school.
"We have a younger daughter who just didn't seem to have that same fit in public schools," Borden said. "We were exploring different options socially and academically that meet her needs."
The Borden family made the switch mid-year, so he's footing the bill. But he hopes to take advantage of a state scholarship program next year.
"Yes. We are relying on that to make sure we can continue to make ends meet and also provide the opportunity to both of our children that they see fit and works best for them," Borden said.
The school choice concept is a big priority for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Legislation in Tallahassee would make those scholarships available to pretty much any student in Florida, removing or greatly expanding income eligibility.
"This could be financially damaging?" WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind asked Superintendent Mike Burke of the School District of Palm Beach County.
"It could. It could," Burke replied. "And that’s why the emphasis is on, we need to retain our students. We need to continue to attract new students. We are growing in Palm Beach County and I think that’s testament to the good job our schools do and our teachers and principals."
Burke said he's watching the issue closely.
"What remains to be seen is when more students become eligible for public school funding that are not currently in our schools, will the state add to the pot and increase the funding, or will it dilute the funding per student? And I’m hoping it’s the former," Burke said.
Borden said his daughter, Lyla, found her fit in private school.
"She's a different child in the best possible way," Borden said. "She's thriving academically. She's made a great group of friends. She doesn't have peer pressure she was feeling. Her anxiety is less and her attitude is better."
And Borden hopes any parent in the same position can help their child find the same.
"I understand the importance of a public education, but I would find any parent to see their kid as the center of their universe. And having something like that to help out is huge so that you don't have to choose whether to pay the bills or raise happy children," Borden said.
Burke said it will likely take time to see the full impact of legislation like this. He plans to be in Tallahassee when the legislative session begins next week.
"It means potentially that students could attend private school and get the benefit of our traditional funding — both state and local funding — that typically would go to public school or charter school," Burke said. "For us, our motto is, 'Your Best Choice.' This is a very competitive environment in Florida already. We’ve had over 20 years of charter schools. Florida is leading the nation with these scholarships. So for me, it just means it’s all that more important that we provide the best product and we keep our students in our schools. The parents recognize the value. We have the most credentialed teachers, well-trained, the strongest principals I believe of any schools in the county, and we have nice facilities. We’ll have 182 schools operating next year."
The scholarship is for the equivalent of what public schools receive in per student funding, which is just under $8,000.
"I think some of our more established private schools, the tuition is well in excess of what these vouchers will provide. And I don’t know if that really will inflict their business model at all," Burke said. "We’ve seen this for a few years with the family empowerment scholarships, and the numbers have grown each year. But it’s another avenue for families to exercise their choice, get the funding that they’d normally receive, the equivalent of it, in a district-operated school, and go to a private provider."