Hanna takes statewide megaphone to blast GOP for ‘diverting’ tax dollars to religious schools

Tallahassee Democrat | By Douglas Soule and Ana Goñi-Lessan | September 21, 2022

Leon County Schools’ superintendent Rocky Hanna on Tuesday accused state Republican lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis of intentionally defunding Florida’s public schools by expanding voucher programs and school choice.

“They will not stop until every family and every student has an educational savings plan to do what they please with,” Hanna said.

His remarks came during a live-streamed press conference held by the Florida Policy Institute and the Education Law Center. The two organizations jointly released a report that estimates the amount redirected from public schools for private schooling this year will reach $1.3 billion, $1 billion more than the 2019-20 school year. The money represents 10% of the $13.2 billion in state money for public schools.

The Florida chapter of the League of Women Voters, Southern Poverty Law Center and other public school advocates also blasted Republican-led efforts to expand voucher programs and school choice.

“What’s happening is we are diverting funds for students with special needs, for students who otherwise are going to lose programs that are vitally important to their academic success,” said Hanna, the only superintendent present at the press confr.

Hanna said three years ago the county saw around $4 million redirected to private institutions. This year, mostly because of the expansion of Family Empowerment Scholarships, that number is $16 million.

Lawmakers expanded the scholarship program during this year’s legislative session to include the McKay Scholarship and eased the restrictions to families who apply. Now, dependents of military members and law enforcement officers qualify, regardless of income, and a family of four with an annual income of $111,000 can apply. The bill eliminated the Gardiner and McKay scholarships and moved them into the “Family Empowerment Scholarship” program, which is funded from the same pot as public schools, rather than through corporate tax credits.

State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, who has long championed school-choice legislation, sponsored HB 7045 in the House.

“When schools failed my family, I was able to put my child in a private school immediately because I’m able to afford it,” said Fine during the 2022 legislative session. “I believe every parent should have the same ability that I do in my own life.”

Students at Bond Elementary School talk ahead of the start of the first day of school on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022 in Tallahassee, Fla.
Students at Bond Elementary School talk ahead of the start of the first day of school on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022 in Tallahassee, Fla. Chasity Maynard/Tallahassee Democrat

Hanna said funds are being diverted from students with special needs, and “for students who otherwise are going to lose programs that are vitally important to their academic success.”

“Over 2,000 students are receiving public funds, public tax dollars to attend private mom and pop schools, many of those being religious-based, with no accountability whatsoever or monitoring from the department of education,” he said.

In a statement, Step Up for Students, a nonprofit, state-approved scholarship funding organization, said the report “grossly distorts how the state funds education choice scholarships.”

“The school districts never receive the money so it can’t be redirected,” the group said. “Scholarship students no more divert funds from districts than students who pay out of pocket for private schools do.”

There are two branches of Family Empowerment Scholarships. One is income based, and the other is for students with disabilities. 

The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities allows for parents to receive an education savings account for their student, according to the Florida Department of Education.

“An ESA can be used to fund not only items such as private school tuition and fees, but also online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials,” the website states.

The report authors call on the Florida Department of Education to increase transparency and accountability over the voucher process and to end further expansion of voucher eligibility.

They also urge the state to put into place restrictions on how much money can be redirected from a public school district and to provide support to the districts seeing significant increases in voucher costs.

Hanna has been fiercely defensive of public school funding during his tenure as superintendent and has butted heads with the governor and Republican lawmakers on topics like masks, unions and social issues in schools.

He’s previously called state Rep. Fine a “bully” and has accused DeSantis of spreading “misinformation and lies.”

Gadsden County is the school district most highly impacted by voucher costs, according to the report, having 9% redirected of what it gets from the Florida Education Finance Program, districts’ primary source of funding. Miami-Dade County will have 8%, or $225 million, sent to private schools.

“We still live in an era of segregated and unequal education,” said Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Children’s Rights Practice Group. “These education inequities are at the root of poverty and ongoing racial injustice.”

“The greatest threat to us ever achieving educational equity,” she said, “is the intentional defunding and destabilization of public education.”

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