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Changes are swirling around Florida's public schools

A school bus
Hillsborough County Schools

Debates over parental rights, school choice and what should be taught in public schools have embroiled state lawmakers and local school districts.

There’s an upheaval in public education in Florida - from books being challenged and removed from classrooms to restrictions on what can be taught and rules around bathroom use, and a massive expansion in school vouchers which families can use to pay for private education.

The voucher expansion has been rocky - delays to the disbursement of voucher money have disrupted some students’ education, while the funding delay caused financial problems for some private schools.

“If they still are working out September, how in the world are we going to get November, that’s what we’re all very concerned with,” said Maria Preston, who runs the Diverse Abilities Center for Learning and Therapy in South Florida.

Curriculum changes are shaking up schools too. In Pasco County, parents and teachers are protesting the school district’s selection of a textbook by personal finance guru and radio host Dave Ramsey - whose advice includes mottos like "debt is dumb, cash is king," and is peppered with biblical references.

"Credit cards are snakes. They're designed to bite you," Ramsey said on one of his recent radio programs. "They're not your friend, and you're not going to win.”

People who spoke out against the decision to approve the textbook at a recent hearing in Pasco County included Alicia Zilay, who said: "Many people have expressed concerns about the infusion of the biblical references and over promotion of Ramsey's products within the material."

But the school district says it followed the correct procedures in approving the financial literacy textbook.

“The evidence will clearly show that both the Florida Department of Education and the District School Board of Pasco County abided by all procedural and sensitive requirements in vetting and adopting these instructional materials,” said assistant superintendent Vanessa Hilton.

Florida Matters host Matthew Peddie talks about the textbook controversy, school vouchers and what both of these stories reveal about the profound changes that are shaking up our public education system. He talks with WUSF reporters Kerry Sheridan and Nancy Guan. Here's an excerpt.

Get us caught up on the latest controversy around school curriculum. It’s a debate over financial guru Dave Ramsey’s textbook being proposed for Pasco County high school students taking a financial literacy class.

Kerry Sheridan

Sheridan: Pasco County has taken steps to approve a new textbook in financial literacy. And really they're following the state of Florida's lead on this, comes just as the state of Florida is requiring a half credit and financial literacy for all those who are entering high school this year. So this textbook, however, by Dave Ramsey has generated some controversy, in part because of Dave Ramsey himself. Dave Ramsey is a well-known radio host. He's written eight best-selling books, millions of people tune into his show every week and hear people call in and tell him about the massive amounts of debt that they're in or, you know, should I pay this off first or this? So some parents and teachers say they're finding problems with the Ramsey textbook and they point to things like Ramsey himself is a Christian conservative. And there are six parts in the textbook that use Bible quotes to kind of backup certain points. Some parents feel that religion shouldn't be used in a public school textbook that way.

How fired up people about this? How dug in are supporters and opponents of this textbook on this decision?

Sheridan: There's a lot of passion from the people who are objecting to it. They want the best resources available for children and they want a good, academically rigorous textbook to be used. And they don't want children to be indoctrinated. We hear this on both sides of the debate, don't we? And then you had the people from the district who were talking about, they had followed the rules, they followed the policy, they did everything they were supposed to do.

So they’re kind of talking past each other there. It sounds like, Kerry, there's quite a lot of money at stake here, right? It's going to cost the school district a fair bit of money to buy and distribute this book and other materials to the students. What do we know about that?

Sheridan: The Pasco County School District has confirmed to me that the cost that they've been quoted is $575,000 for the Ramsey textbook, they don't have an official contract or purchase agreement executed at this point. They're still waiting for the hearing process to play out.

Nancy, you've been reporting on the school voucher expansion, just remind us why this voucher expansion was such a big deal. And how many more students are now being funded with public education dollars to attend private schools.

Guan: So just to review, private school vouchers, they're essentially scholarships for students to use towards private school tuition. Each student receives about $8,000, give or take, depending on the county they live in, and it's a big deal because it's the largest expansion of private school vouchers in state history. Prior to the expansion, the program, it was geared towards lower income students and there was a cap to how many vouchers could be given out. The expansion got rid of the income requirement and cap, and it opened up the program to virtually all K-12 students in Florida.

Nancy Guan

This school year, we've definitely seen a significant increase in the number of students who have applied for private school vouchers. About 100,000 or more students were awarded vouchers this year than last year, totaling to around almost 350,000 students. In some counties, we've seen the number of applicants for these vouchers double before the school year started, including in Hillsborough County.

But I think people are still trying to figure out whether or not we're seeing that major shift from public to private that people were fearing. You know, Step Up For Students, which is the main voucher distributor for the state, they've pushed against the idea that there would be this exodus. And according to them, they say that a majority of these new voucher recipients have already been attending private schools, and a much smaller portion are students coming from public schools. So we won't really know the true number of students and dollars going to private education. It's still kind of early, it's the beginning of the school year. Schools are still waiting to see how many students who received the vouchers will actually attend private schools.

You can listen to the full conversation by clicking on the “Listen” button above. Or you can listen on the WUSF app under “Programs & Podcasts.

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.