One of the hottest topics of debate in the Florida Legislative Session was the school choice legislation. For all the back and forth leading up to the passage of SB 48/HB 7045, legislators deserve our thanks for including a key group the proposal will affect: working-class families like mine, who desire a particular kind of education that their children simply can’t get in public schools. We now look to the governor to finalize this progress by signing the measure into law.
My husband and I work hard to provide a good life for our twin 9-year-old boys. My grandmother survived the horrors of Auschwitz while remaining steadfast to her Jewish values and traditions, and we wanted to cling to that heritage and pass on our faith’s traditions to our children. That was at the core of our decision to send them to a school with both a strong Jewish and secular education.
So much of the school choice discussion in Tallahassee was over whether, and how, the state should help kids attend private schools. But that debate isn’t the central focus for a large group of families where both parents work so they can make ends meet, but still want something for their children that the public schools cannot provide. Paying for our sons’ schooling isn’t easy, but it’s so very important to us.
Two years ago, the state created the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), in large part to ease the waitlist for the existing tax credit scholarship program. That same year, my boys began attending Torah Academy of Boca Raton. I was excited to hear that the Family Empowerment Scholarship would open educational options to working-class families like mine that live paycheck to paycheck, but never qualified for the previous scholarship.
Unfortunately, I learned that only students entering kindergarten or switching from public school were eligible for a scholarship. It felt like the financial relief that was so close had slipped through our fingers. It was a familiar story, as my job at the time included helping families at a Jewish private school access services for their special needs children with a range of educational, emotional, and behavioral challenges. I often had to recommend that the students leave the familiarity and comfort of the private school environment and attend a local public school so they could qualify for the McKay special education scholarship program.
Without scholarship help, so many families find specialized private education out of reach, whether they are seeking individualized services for their special needs children or the kind of instruction with traditional Jewish values that led us to our sons’ school.
After seeing so many families shut out of scholarship programs, I changed jobs to work at Teach Florida, an organization that advocates on behalf of Jewish day schools and families. Teach Florida has been working for the removal of the requirement of prior public school attendance and an increase in household income thresholds, provisions that have limited the options of so many children.
The legislation has passed, and we urge Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign it into law. When that happens, I will be even more excited to work with families and let many of them know that they now have options that will change their children’s lives for the better. I am so grateful to our state’s leaders for placing the power of school choice as a priority for our families.
I know that this legislation’s positive impact for my own family and thousands of others will be felt for a long time to come as we make the best educational decisions for better outcomes for our children.
Malka Kownat-Rhodes, a longtime professional in the field of special education is a school funding specialist with Teach Florida. She, her husband, and their twin sons live in Boca Raton.