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Florida Academy Proves School Choice Doesn’t Have To Mean Government Strings Attached

Fears of ‘government strings’ and bureaucratic restrictions are unfounded if the school-choice legislation is crafted carefully.

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Can you imagine a less modern opinion than this: “The one thing that is never taught by any chance in the atmosphere of public schools is this: that there is a whole truth of things, and that in knowing it and speaking it we are happy.”

This was written by G.K. Chesterton over a century ago, long before public schools went woke, and well before there were “your truths” and “my truths” — there was only the Truth. Now, of course, American public schools are more focused on pushing the woke agenda than teaching truth, beauty, and goodness. The school-choice boom we’re currently seeing is a direct reaction to what parents learned during the pandemic about their children’s education.

Many claim that school-choice dollars come with restrictive government strings — with bureaucrats attempting to control educational content, for example, or even to interfere in hiring decisions. In Texas, this seemed to be the winning argument as rural Republicans helped Democrats defeat all school-choice bills. They leaned into this message hard — and even as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott campaigns against anti-school choice incumbents, they’re doubling down on the tactic.

But the Chesterton Academy in Orlando, Florida reveals that the “government strings” argument against school choice falls short.

Academy Headmaster Jim Hickel explains that his school was opened a year and a half ago by concerned parents. They were helped — not hindered — by Florida’s school-choice program. There are no strings. The Chesterton Academy can teach all of those anti-modern ideas the public schools have left behind — you know, ideas promoting truth, beauty, and goodness.

“If the Florida scholarships program hadn’t have come along, the Chesterton Academy could still have happened,” Hickel says. “But it would have been a tiny school with just a handful of families. It would have looked more like a homeschool co-op. But what the legislature has done, by making parental choice available statewide, has made all the difference in the world.”

The Chesterton Academy opened with 32 students and expects to have more than 80 next fall. February just ended, and next year’s freshman class has almost already filled up completely.

But again, fear of government strings or restrictions may prevent other places in the country from moving forward with school choice or embracing the success of a model similar to Chesterton Academy.

In Texas, fears of government strings helped sink a school-choice bill last summer. As a group called Texans for Homeschool Freedom contended, “Government money inevitably comes with government strings, and any private entity that accepts tax dollars must be accountable to taxpayers for every dollar and dime that is spent.” 

And Ector County ISD Superintendent Scott Muri, like many others, stoked such fears in his opposition to school choice. “There should be a whole lot of accountability strings attached to those dollars, just like we have accountability strings,” he said.

But such fears are unfounded if the legislation is crafted carefully. Hickel confirms this.

“The money goes to the family, and the family makes the choice,” he said. “There’s no direct connection between the school and the state.”

Private schools aren’t completely unregulated, Hickel noted.

“The only regulations we have to follow are the general regulations, such as attendance, for having specific courses like algebra, biology, civics, and things like that,” he said. “As long as you meet those expectations, you’re in good standing.”

The Chesterton Academy adds courses in theology, philosophy, art, drama, and music to its core curriculum. And if its school day lasts a little longer than the state requires, that’s OK too.

But aren’t those Florida school-choice scholarships going to wealthy families who already have their children in private school? Hickel has thought about this question, too.

“We’re not all wealthy,” Hickel said. “Of our current families, 38 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches. The year we opened, the state’s income threshold for the scholarships was $100,000 per family. Any family — not individual — making more than that did not qualify. But all of our families qualified.”

How much does the Chesterton Academy cost? That changes every year, Hickel said, but the school strives to keep it affordable for working-class families.

“The average private school tuition in Florida is $7,200 per year,” he said. “Our tuition next year will be $9,500.”

The state’s scholarship allotment is up to around $7,500 per student, which will leave the family to come up with about $2,000 per child enrolled.

“And that’s doable,” Hickel said. “If working parents had to come up with the full $9,500 every year, there’s no way. We’d be teaching to empty classrooms.”

What the Florida school-choice scholarship program has provided is a route out of the public school monopoly for every family — not just the ones that can afford hefty private school tuition. While 29 states and the District of Columbia have some sort of school-choice program, Florida’s model is the one that’s catching on — and is being closely watched in the Lone Star State.

Like GKC himself, the Chesterton Academy is joyously opposed to modernity. After all, as Chesterton noted, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”


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