Palm Beach County school enrollment up, despite expanded private school voucher program

New state law removes income cap for private school scholarships, allowing more students to receive funding

WPTV | By Stephanie Susskind | October 2, 2023

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — About a month and a half into the new school year, and it appears the state’s expanded voucher program is not having as great of an impact on Palm Beach County public school enrollment as some feared.

In fact, more students are attending district schools compared to last year.

However, the success of the expanded voucher program depends on who you ask.

“We have two different kids with two different sets of needs,” said Palm Beach County dad Scott Borden.

Borden has one daughter in public school and the other using a state scholarship to attend private school.

“To be able to send our child to private school would have been a burden on our family financially. So now we’re at a point where we can have less of a burden and focus more on her wellness and well-being, which is what school is all about,” Borden said.

Public school advocates feared a new state law that removed the income cap for private school scholarships would hurt enrollment and therefore funding. But so far, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Palm Beach County.

“Enrollment is strong. We’re up about 1,000 students across our district, which is great considering all the competition we face now,” said Superintendent Mike Burke of the School District of Palm Beach County.

Burke told WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind that with close to 167,000 students, the district continues to grow.

“I had my fingers crossed,” Burke said. “We’ve done a lot of work over the summer to promote our schools. We put a lot of effort into the kindergarten enrollment, the class of 2036. So we felt really good about it. But it was really nice to see it validated when the kids showed up for the first day of school.”

Burke said this year’s kindergarten class was about 200 students over the district’s projections.

“I’m hoping those kids have a good experience and they stick with us for the next 13 years,” Burke said.

The scholarship program is growing, too. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has touted more than 400,000 students receiving the average $8,000 voucher to help pay for private school or homeschooling.

“We probably added about another 40,000 to 45,000 kids that we wouldn’t normally have added, and we’ve seen a lot of growth in homeschool families because of flexibility of the spending,” said Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up For Students, which manages the scholarships.

According to data from Step Up For Students, about 20,000 Palm Beach County students were awarded scholarships for this school year. It’s just under 2,000 in Martn County, 5,400 in St. Lucie County, about 1,700 for Indian River County, and more than 400 students in Okeechobee County.

The organization said close to 70% of new scholarship students, however, were already enrolled in private school.

“People are voting with their feet. They’re fighting for their kids. And I think at the end of the day, everybody is going to benefit,” Tuthill said. “Nobody is trying to hurt anybody. All we’re trying to do is make sure every child has an equal opportunity to succeed.”

Burke said it’s something the district will keep its eye on, while Borden is focused on his children’s success.”A parent’s job is to avoid the noise and take care of their child,” Borden said.

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