Education choice benefits families like mine

opinion

As a mother whose children benefit from Florida education scholarships, I was offended by the recent “Your Turn” column by the Rev. Ray Johnson [“‘Scholarship’ program threatens education,” Feb. 17].

He’s alarmed that under education choice, parents, not educators, evaluate their children’s educational progress. Apparently, he doesn’t trust parents to know what’s best for their own children. Perhaps he should meet some of the hundreds of thousands of scholarship families over the years who moved mountains trying to find the best learning environment for their children.

I’m one of them.

He uses scare tactics to misrepresent how education savings accounts (ESAs) work, likening them to “gift cards.” My son Gregory, who is on the autism spectrum, receives the Gardiner Scholarship for special-needs students. That program, which has been around since 2014, operates as an ESA, similar to how Senate Bill 48 would transform the Florida Tax Credit and Family Empowerment scholarships for lower-income students.

We do not receive a debit card. Funds are deposited into an account. Purchases must be made from a list of pre-approved items and services. If something is not on a list, parents must submit a pre-authorization request that is reviewed by a committee and approved before the money can be spent. I know this to be a rigorous process.

He suggests the scholarship amounts are inadequate to cover the costs of private schooling. That would be news to the nearly 140,000 students and their families currently enrolled on the tax credit and Family Empowerment scholarships. They were able to afford private schools that they found work for them.

Finally, the author breaks out that moldy myth about scholarships diverting funds from public schools. Eight independent studies of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship say otherwise. They concluded that the program actually saves the state money on public education because the value of the scholarships is less than what the state spends per pupil on public school students.

But there’s a more fundamental issue in play: Are funds for institutions or students? Nobody forces families to apply for scholarships. They choose to do it because they are dissatisfied with the limited education options they’ve been given. For many lower-income parents, they don’t have the means to pay out of pocket for private school tuition, or for tutors, or to move to a neighborhood with a better zoned school. The scholarships provide them the opportunity to exercise the kind of choice wealthier families already enjoy.

The Rev. Johnson’s portrayal of education choice in Florida does not match the reality that I know so well as a parent whose family has benefited from scholarships.

Katie Swingle is an active school choice parent and advocate in Polk County. She resides in Winter Haven.

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