DeSantis wants to expand scholarships for private schools, eliminate waiting list

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday he wants to eliminate a waiting list for around 14,000 low-income students seeking to use a tax-payer funded scholarship program that lets them attend private schools.

DeSantis said at a news conference in Orlando that he would ask the Florida Legislature to create a new scholarship program called "Equal Opportunity Scholarships," similar to the existing Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.

The governor described the scholarship program as "a really great success for the state of Florida" and said 70 percent of the students in the current program are black or Hispanic.

“The parent knows what’s best for their child,” DeSantis said. “No one in Tallahassee is going to know what’s best for your child better than a parent. Nobody in a school district, or a bureaucracy.”

Right now, the scholarship has a waitlist of nearly 14,000 students. DeSantis wants to end their wait by increasing funds, saying it would “provide a way for all of these families who are on the waitlist to have access to a scholarship."

The move would affect waitlisted families like the Wrights. 

Single mother Shereka Wright says bullying and poor grades were the deciding factors in sending her sons to private school.

“We live paycheck to paycheck and sometimes I have to decide between buying food and paying tuition,” Wright said. “I don't have the money to keep up with the tuition, and the school's patience can't last forever."

The governor’s plan is to cap the growth to 14,000 students this year, which would clear the waiting list.

The proposal garnered support from St. Petersburg Reverend Manuel Sykes.

"The governor's proposal today to eliminate the waitlist will help public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity especially for the children, in south St. Pete."

The chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party said the proposed new scholarship program would starve public schools of funding and "funnel tax dollars into the hand of unaccountable special interests."

DeSantis' announcement is the latest expansion of Florida's taxpayer-funded support for private schools in the two decades that Republicans have controlled the Governor's Mansion.

"With today's announcement, it's clear that Ron DeSantis intends to govern just as the Republican Party of Florida has governed for decades, by selling out Florida's families and children to corporate special interests," said Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party.

DeSantis said he believe his proposal could stand up to any legal challenge brought by opponents of the tax-payer-funded private school choice programs.

“If the taxpayer is paying for the education, it’s public education," DeSantis said. "We have parents who are lining up for a tax credit scholarship.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.