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private school vouchers
Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz

Expanding school choice is a central piece of Mitt Romney’s education platform. But allowing more public dollars to follow low-income and special-needs children to private schools — one of Romney’s main proposals for reforming American education– does not guarantee those schools will open their doors to them.

For example, a private school not far from the convention center — highlighted on the GOP Convention website as one of Florida’s best independent schools — did not take part in Florida’s first voucher program, which was ruled unconstitutional in 2006. And Tampa Preparatory School — founded in 1974 by a group of Tampa citizens, including Al Austin, chairman of the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee for the Republican convention — does not participate in the state’s current school choice programs.

Florida has a voucher program for special-education students and a tax credit scholarship program in which taxpayers are able to receive credits for donations made toward private school scholarships for low-income students.

As it turns out, many of Florida’s independent schools, which are a small subset of private schools that aim to be entirely independent from the government, do not take any form of public money on philosophical grounds.

“Vouchers have not impacted us significantly one way or the other,” said Barbara Hodges, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools. The group accredits 159 independent schools across the state, including Tampa Prep. “It does not mean that we are supportive or non-supportive [of vouchers]. Part of being independent means that, typically, our schools do not take tax dollars.”

Tampa Prep, which serves grades six through 12, stresses student participation and the development of self-confidence. It’s open to students of all backgrounds, its website says. The middle school costs $18,375 a year, if paid in two installments in June and December, and the high school costs $19,025. The school supplies its own financial aid to help families unable to cover the full cost of tuition.

Robin Kennedy, the school’s Director of Alumni Relations and Communications, said in an email that the school had looked into vouchers, but so far has chosen not to participate.

Other Florida private schools say they would welcome an expanded voucher system. Many parochial schools around the country have struggled in recent years to stay afloat financially.

“[Romney’s plan] is definitely something we’d follow with interest,” said James Herzog, associate director of education for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, which oversees the state’s Catholic schools. “We think it would make a big difference to our schools.

Although not all of Florida’s Catholic schools chose to take part in the state’s current school choice programs, the majority do, Herzog said, and the number grows each year.

“Most of the schools do say it’s a way to … make schools more accessible and affordable,” Herzog said. “We just wish there was more available for the middle class.”

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