Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1 (HB 1) into law on March 27, 2023. With the stroke of his pen – he made every child in Florida eligible for a program that lets parents transfer the cost of educating their child directly from the state to a private school of their choice. Essentially, children who receive the voucher can take the tax dollars set aside by the state and local school boards for their education, approximately $8,500 per student, to pay for a private, religious, or homeschool education of their choice.
The bill was passed largely along party lines in the Florida House and Senate, where Republicans hold veto-proof majorities.
The change will take effect on July 1, 2023 – so vouchers can be applied for and used as soon as the coming school year.
The Education Law Center – a New Jersey-based think tank that centers its work around improving public schools – says that the total cost for the program statewide could cost in the neighborhood of $4 Billion during its first year of implementation. In Okaloosa County alone – the center estimates the Okaloosa County School District would lose around $876 per pupil that would continue to be educated by the district in public school.
Currently, most school-aged children (87.61%) attend public schools in Okaloosa County. The next-largest group is homeschooled (6.69%), and the remainder go to private schools with or without a voucher (5.67%). With the passage of HB1 and the Governor’s signature, the Education Law Center estimates that the number of students attending private schools instead of public schools will increase from 5.67% to around 14%
Dr. Michael Mosley serves as the Superintendent of Rocky Bayou Christian School and has lived in the area for the last 42 years. Rocky Bayou is the largest private school in Okaloosa County – with an enrollment right around 1,000 students.
Mosley says we won’t see an overnight change in education in Okaloosa County. “Good schools are everywhere in Okaloosa County, and they will continue to be good. You name the flavor [of school]. We will have it because of competition,” Mosley said about the types of schools in the area, “It’s how we shop for groceries and cell phones. It works.”
Rocky Bayou already has 300 children on the waiting list for the coming year, which means there is already a demand for private education without the voucher’s increased availability. So much so that, before the law’s passage, Rocky Bayou had already expanded its facilities to include a new high school. “We were at [an enrollment of] 730 before Covid. Now we are at 1,000 plus. We’ll be at 1,250 or 1,300 with the new building open,’ Mosley added, “We had 300 on the wait list in February. We will finish our new building in December. We would have expected to fill that in two to three years, but now – it’ll be filled the day we open it.”
The challenge for the Christian school will be maintaining its culture, Mosley says. That adherence to principles will mean more measured growth which won’t necessarily pace with demand. “We can’t grow too fast, or we will lose our flavor. Having [the culture we want] is hard to do. Our culture is anti-gravity. Slower growth means managing culture well.”
Finally, Rocky Bayou won’t simply accept the voucher and admit students – the school believes that parents having skin in the game financially will ensure success. “What I’ve seen with our internal scholarships is that if you give people 100% scholarship, their approach to school alters greatly.” Mosley does say they alter the amount of scholarship above the voucher they receive from the state depending on the individual family’s financial situation.
At a recent campaign fundraising event at Niceville’s 3rd Planet Brewing, Marcus Chambers also addressed the subject of House Bill 1’s effect on Okaloosa County Schools. “I thoroughly believe in the parent’s ability to have choices,” he said, “I think here in Okaloosa, and in our surrounding counties, we have an excellent school system that is able to meet the needs of students, Families that want to go the private route, they absolutely can do so – and this house bill provides them the opportunity.”
Chambers did stress he spoke to the Okaloosa County Legislative delegation about the bill. Members of the Okaloosa delegation, Dr. Joel Rudman (R | Navarre) and Jay Trumbull (R | Panama City) voted in favor of the bill. Mid Bay News couldn’t determine how General T. Patt Maney (R | Shalimar) voted. Chambers added he spoke to the members of the Okaloosa delegation about taking Family Empowerment Scholarships out of the funding model for public schools. This would essentially have the state government cover the cost of private school and continue to fund a student’s place in the public school they left. “We’ll work through it like we have the last number of years, but I think parents can have choices – and that’s good. But, I also think school districts have to be able to run with the funding model we have.”
While the school district received the majority of its estimated tax money for the 2022-2023 school year from property taxes ($105.6 million), the state’s funding for Okaloosa County Schools wasn’t far behind – accounting for about $83.7 billion in total monies for the budget, an 11.8% increase from the previous year.
Regardless of how the schools are funded in the future – the city of Niceville’s schools are currently at capacity – and will need more room should the population continue to grow. More on that here.