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School owners, parents at odds over Florida's private school voucher program

The program allows every student in Florida — regardless of income — about $8,000 that can be used to attend a private school of their choice. But some worry it's weakening public education.
Florida Private School Vouchers
Posted at 9:35 AM, May 29, 2024

At South Shore Montessori School near Tampa, Florida, founder and CEO Rohini Rustogi calls the state's newly expanded school voucher program a game changer.

“We are fully enrolled," she said. "In the past, we would lose children going into kindergarten, but now we’re able to retain those children."

State vouchers are helping more than half of students at her school pay the private school tuition. Each state voucher is worth upwards of $8,0000 per student, helping to reduce annual tuition costs significantly for some families.

Jennifer Grocher is sending her two students to the school with a state voucher.

“It gives parents choices,” Grocher said about the voucher program. “If that wasn't a possibility, my kids would have to go to their zoned school, which is not, ideally, my option."

“It’s been amazing,” said Kimberly Boswell Warbrough, who also has two children attending private schools with a state voucher.

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But while these parents tout Florida’s newly expanded universal school voucher program as an overwhelming success, some school operators are giving the program mixed reviews.

“It’s a mess until they fix it,” said Juliet Sanomi, owner of Dickens Sanomi Academy, a private school in Broward County for students with disabilities.

Eight months ago, we first exposed how Florida’s new voucher expansion — which makes taxpayer money available to all students to attend a private school regardless of family income — was marred by payment delays and communication failures with the state contractor hired to distribute the money.

The situation became so critical that some private schools for students with disabilities faced shutting down and leaving the families who relied on them facing the unknown.

“If the school has to close because they don't get their funding, my son has nowhere else to go,” one mom said.

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Today, Sanomi and some other private school owners told us they are still dealing with payment delays.

“It’s still a mess,” said Sanomi, who told us she owed nearly $100,000 in interest after taking out a loan at the start of the school year to cover costs because the state’s voucher money kept coming late. She added that some of her student voucher reimbursements are still running behind.

“It has to be micromanaged until we get it right because these families depend on this,” Sanomi said of the taxpayer-funded program.

“We're talking six, eight weeks late," explained Mary Jo Walsh, who owns the Mountaineer School of Autism in West Palm Beach. "And that's what’s forced so many of us into these high-interest loans."

Walsh became so fed up with the state’s payment problems that, in the fall, she formed a coalition of schools dealing with similar issues. Eight months later, she’s still hearing from members who are still waiting for voucher money.

“Teachers are worried that the end of the year is not going to be able to be completed," Walsh said. "And school owners are having to make difficult decisions as to whether they're going to close their doors and not reopen again in the fall."

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In an email, a spokesperson for Step Up for Students, the sole state contractor hired to oversee and distribute Florida’s school voucher money, stated they’ve fulfilled over 99% of tuition payments worth more than $2.2. billion.

But the organization also acknowledged issues.

"Given the complexity of Florida’s choice programs, there will always be some payments that are in the process of being worked on," spokesperson Scott Kent stated.

Step Up doubled its call center staff and recently hired a new CEO. However, the rough rollout this year gained the attention of multiple media outlets and Florida lawmakers, who passed legislation this past session setting deadlines for when voucher payments must be distributed to schools.

Despite the issues and the delay in payments, school owners we recently spoke with describe Florida’s new voucher program as a success for students and families.

"It’s a success," said Walsh. "With that being said, there's still room for improvement. There's a great need for a private option, and the voucher is there, and it is very helpful. It's just that it needs to be delivered in a timely manner. It needs to be efficient in its delivery system, and that's where the problem is."

This story was originally published by Katie LaGrone at Scripps News Tampa.