April 15, 2024

My friend Andrea recently brought her daughter Sofia over for a visit. A precocious and ebullient little kindergartner, Sofia wanted to show me her new school uniform – a peter-pan collared shirt overlaid with a plaid jumper. On the chest of the jumper was a golden cross and the initials of Saints Peter and Paul. “This means my school belongs to God,” Sofia took great pains to explain to me. “We pray every day to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and everyone is so happy there!”

Andrea looked on, teary-eyed, and I must confess my eyes watered too. She told me she never dreamed her daughter would be able to attend a Catholic school here in the United States. Sofia can – thanks to Florida’s new universal school choice program.

I’ve known Andrea since she arrived in Miami at the age of ten. Her parents brought her over the border from Mexico and she later qualified as a Dreamer, graduating from Coral Gables High School in Miami. She worked in the hotel industry and was rising to a position of responsibility at a local hotel when the Covid lockdowns derailed her career. She and her husband work hard but make ends meet only with the help of family. They pay $50 a month toward Sofia’s tuition. Her choice scholarship pays the rest of the $8652 per-year tuition.

Sofia’s story is one repeated by the hundreds of thousands in schools across our state. Last March, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB1 into law, making 3.4 million K-12  students in Florida eligible for a choice scholarship. Florida is investing heavily in the idea that school choice enhances the education of all students, private, charter and public, because it fosters healthy competition and growth. The expectation is that all Florida schools will be working harder every day to offer parents what they want for their children: orderly and pleasant learning environments, academic excellence, and special attractions like classical curricula and innovative programming.

Even when supplied with a wide range of options, Catholic schools like Sts. Peter and Paul are successfully capturing the interest of parents. Before the expansion of Florida choice programs there were many families who didn’t qualify for a needs-based scholarship but also couldn’t afford the relatively modest price of a parochial education. This barrier has been demolished. Now Catholic schools here are full; new ones are opening up and existing schools are growing. The steady expansion of state scholarship programs helps explain why.

Like Sofia’s family, many of the families that are new to the parochial system are interested in the religious and moral formation Catholic schools provide. As Catholics themselves, they know that an active faith provides overarching meaning and community connection, and they want these sustaining things for their children. However, there is more to the Catholic school advantage than religious education, and savvy parents of all faiths or no faith at all are flocking to those institutions. Indeed, non-Catholics make up a full 20 percent of Catholic school enrollments.

The Florida scholarship programs are a smart investment for parents, students and taxpayers. Researcher David Figlio has shown that low-income Catholic school students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship out-perform their non-Catholic school peers in both reading and math. Annual learning gains by these disadvantaged students show that the academic excellence, high expectations, and well-ordered and disciplined atmosphere at these schools are just what these students need to live up to their full potential.

It’s also worth noting that Florida’s Catholic school are increasingly diverse. In fact, they enroll slightly more students of color (65%) than our public schools. The high-quality education is especially telling and timely in the face of the nation-wide, post-pandemic lockdown declines in math and reading scores that hit Black and Hispanic students particularly hard. 

Diversity at these schools also extends to programming and innovation. Many Florida Catholic schools offer International Baccalaureate programs; some offer work-study programs; others in remote areas cater to the needs of farm workers, with adult education classes, bilingual teachers and a scholarship funds for alums who go on to college. The Archdiocese of Miami even runs a Virtual Catholic School to enhance the course offerings of brick-and-mortar schools across the state. 

The process of making school choice in Florida available to every single K-12 student has been an exciting ride. Opening a panorama of options for every kid–not just those lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family–is something all states should consider emulating. I expect Catholic schools across the country would find themselves bursting at the seams, like those in Florida. And I expect there would be lots of little Sofias who would be living the dreams of their hard-working parents by obtaining a Catholic education.  

Grazie Pozo Christie, M.D., is a Senior Fellow for The Catholic Association and host of the nationally syndicated radio show Conversations with Consequences.

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