U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio touts federal school choice plan at private school

Sen. Rubio visited several classrooms at Florida College Academy, including this second-grade class. The students were in the midst of a social studies lesson on goods and services.
Sen. Rubio visited several classrooms at Florida College Academy, including this second-grade class. The students were in the midst of a social studies lesson on goods and services.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., used a Tampa-area private school as a backdrop Tuesday to highlight his proposal for a federal school choice program that resembles Florida’s tax credit scholarships.

Under the bill he filed in February, low-income parents anywhere in the country would be able to defray private school tuition with scholarships funded by individuals and corporations who make donations in return for federal tax credits.“I think school choice means that every parent in America, irrespective of how much money you make or don’t make, should be allowed to put their kids in any educational environment they deem fit,” Rubio said during an hour-long visit to Florida College Academy in Temple Terrace. “And I think what’s sad about the current status across most of our country is that the only people who don’t have school choice are the people who need it the most.”

Rubio’s bill isn’t the first school choice bill considered at the federal level, but it may be the most sweeping. It would make private schools an option for low-income families in states that don’t currently have vouchers or tax credit scholarships, essentially bypassing resistance from teachers unions and school boards and, in some cases, state constitutions.

Individuals could give up to $4,500 a year to “scholarship granting organizations” in return for dollar-for-dollar tax credits. Corporations could give up to $100,000. The SGOs would award scholarships to students whose household incomes do not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $58,875 this year.

It’s not clear what the per-scholarship amount would be. In Florida, a tax credit scholarship this year is valued at $4,335.

The Florida program is the largest of its kind in the country, and serves more than 50,000 students this year. It’s administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Florida College Academy is a Christian-based, non-denominational school founded in 1958. It serves 173 students in pre-K through eighth-grade, including 37 who use tax credit scholarships.

Rubio toured several classrooms and lobbed questions at students. He also met with a handful of teachers and scholarship parents.

“Everybody knows me – the kids, the teachers, the principals,” said Denise Waite, whose son Darius Lue is an eighth-grader. “They feel like a family, like they’re part of me.”

Waite said another son spent several years at the school and is now a senior at Tampa Bay Tech, a public high school. She said she is satisfied with both schools. “It’s not cut and dry any more. We have so many more choices,” she said. “Kids do have different interests, and do learn differently. I’m glad we’re starting to recognize that.”

Rubio complimented public schools and stressed support for them several times during the visit. He noted that he attended public schools and that several family members are public school educators.

“I don’t think we should diminish the work our public schools are doing across this country. Some of the finest ones I have visited are public schools in dangerous neighborhoods, where they’re doing extraordinary work at giving kids a chance at a better life, learning the skills they need to have a better life than their parents,” he said. “But sometimes that’s not the case. And when it’s not, parents should have the opportunity to improve that school or send their kids to another place where they will learn.”

Rubio’s bill would  require scholarship recipients to take nationally norm-referenced tests. It would also require participating schools to issue academic reports to parents that include aggregate test score comparisons to other scholarship students, and to report aggregate scores to the SGOs, broken down by race and ethnicity.

Rubio took questions from traditional news reporters at the end of the visit. None asked about school choice.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.