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As universal school choice nears in Florida, some say more people of color should take advantage

a notebook, markers, calculator and scissors arranged artistically
Craig Moore
WFSU Public Media
a notebook, markers, calculator and scissors arranged artistically

On July 1, 2023, every school-aged child in the state will become eligible for an education savings account or private school tuition stipend. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed off on a massive expansion of school choice that lifts income eligibility caps on the program.

DeSantis signed the bill at a Catholic high school alongside key state lawmakers and education leaders. The governor used the signing ceremony to point out that historically, most of the users of the state’s school choice programs have been Black and Hispanic students.

“That’s just the reality and part of that is a reflection of Florida’s demographics but part of that is that we really want to have no barriers for anyone regardless of their circumstances," he said.

According to the most recent state data, the demographics remain true today. In 2022, 39% of students receiving a private school tuition voucher were Hispanic, and 28% were Black. The emphasis on minority children is also a function of how the state’s original choice programs were crafted.

When they were implemented in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were for kids with disabilities, low-income students, and those in failing public schools—factors that are largely related to race and ethnicity. It’s something Denisha Allen is keenly aware of, as well.

“I come from a family of high school dropouts. And so it was, you know, kind of destined that I would just follow in the same path as my family members,"
she said in an interview with WFSU.

"Many of them had jobs...working at a fast food restaurant. And I'm like, 'okay, that'll be [me]. I'll probably, you know, have a baby or get a fast food restaurant. That'll just be my life.'”

That life did not happen for Allen. She was among the early wave of school voucher recipients. For years, Allen was the public face of the state’s corporate tax scholarship program. She appeared in commercials supporting school vouchers, and she spoke in legislative hearings and at rallies in support of the program. In 2020, Allen founded an organization called Black Minds Matter. It keeps a directory of Black-owned and operated private schools. Allen is also a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, and she has long credited a private school with helping her recover from educational neglect. As a child, Allen failed third grade, twice, and her parents weren’t supportive. Today, she is married with a family of her own and is looking to see how Florida’s newest venture in school choice will evolve.

“The people who took advantage of this program are now establishing families for themselves and will be taking advantage of choice for their kids’ lives. We’re not just going to accept the status quo," she said.

Florida’s private schools have long enjoyed privileges not granted to public schools—a major one is having the freedom to decide their own teaching standards and curriculum. Critics have long complained that a lack of standards for private schools receiving state money is unfair—however, that also means that private schools are free to teach whatever they want and there’s no clawback mechanism, as noted by Democratic State Sen. Bobby Powell as he voiced disapproval with the state's school choice expansion.

“We talked about private schools being religious, private schools being Afrocentric or ‘Wise, Outspoken, Knowledgeable and Educated’. Senator Berman also brought up that in other states…they were teaching—homeschool teaching—neo-Nazism," he said.

Powell’s idea of a WOKE [Wise, Outspoken, Knowledgeable and Educated] private school has roots in history.

The choice movement emerged as a response to desegregation, but in the late 1960s and 1970s, so-called “Free Schools” emerged that had a definite ideological—but not necessarily religious—focus. And, there have long been private schools geared toward certain students, like Jewish Day Schools, ones for Muslim students, and others. Today’s expansion of vouchers has been fueled by post-pandemic blowback and an increasingly heated culture war rooted in what Gov. Ron DeSantis has decried as a “woke ideology.” For many observers of history—those words are laced with racial overtones, but there's a silver lining in them.

“That law may not have been written with you in mind, parents of color, but the law is still there. So it would behoove us to leverage those laws to our own advantage," said Tallahassee Community College History Professor Andrea Oliver in an interview with sister-station WJCT in Jacksonville. That city recently welcomed two charter schools modeled after Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“We may not have been the group lawmakers had in mind when they wrote these “parental choice” laws…but you know what? The words are what they say on paper.”

Critics of school choice have long been concerned about resegregation in education. Today’s segregation is not by law, it’s by choice.

"We don’t criticize or question the fact that Jewish parents say we want our kids to go to Jewish schools, period," said Allen, who added there's a double standard when it comes to Black and Hispanic students and school choice.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with self-segregation because people need tribes in order to succeed, to have a sense of identity and closure, love and compassion. What I think of most people is scared that if people are involved in tribes they’ll come out of their tribe and not be socially acceptable of other people ad backgrounds," she said.

Opponents of Florida's universal choice plan worry resegregation in public schools will only accelerate.

Will that be the case? Allen says "I guess we’ll see."

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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