While Catholic and Christian schools have benefited from Florida’s voucher programs, a new statewide group of pastors is pushing back against vouchers that allow students to attend private schools with public money.
Instead, the new organization called Pastors for Florida Children will be advocating for the millions of students in Florida’s traditional public schools.
The group primarily includes pastors, but also other people of faith.
“We believe wholeheartedly in the separation of church and state. Public tax dollars should not be funding religious education,” said Rachel Shapard, an ordained minister and spokeswoman for the new group. She is associate coordinator at Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida.
The new group is part of a wider network of similar groups in other states, including Texas, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
The new Florida group’s inaugural event was a rally earlier this week at the historic Old Capitol, stressing that the state’s voucher programs interfere in the affairs of the church and infringe on religious freedom.
“We are absolutely for neighborhood community public schools and making sure that they are fully funded so that every child has the opportunity to thrive,” Shapard said in an interview with the Phoenix.
“We see vouchers as something that directly affects public schools.” She was referencing public dollars that are siphoned off to allow kids to attend private schools.
Public school kids make up about 90 percent of student enrollment in Florida, state data show.
The group supports increasing spending on traditional public schools.
Meanwhile, the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis have proposed an expansion of voucher programs this session.
Step Up for Students, which contracts with the state to manage several “scholarship” programs allowing students to attend private schools with public dollars. Critics call the scholarship programs vouchers.
Spokesman Patrick Gibbons responded to the new group by saying that “Leading black and Hispanic pastors who have long supported the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students reaffirmed their backing for state-supported school choice Tuesday as a new group claiming to represent faith leaders prepared to attack such options.”
Step Up’s statement also included remarks from pastors:
“This new group does not represent the dominant sentiment of minority ministers in Florida,” said Mark Coats, pastor of Grace of God Baptist Church in Miami, which is affiliated with Grace Christian Preparatory School. Coats is vice chairman of the African American Ministers Alliance for Parental Choice, which has 86 members across Florida.
“When a lawsuit threatened to shut down Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program, over 200 black and Hispanic ministers signed a petition calling for its dismissal. Even today, there are ministers contacting their local legislators to urge them to expand choice for their constituents.”
“The South Florida Hispanic Ministers Association wholeheartedly supports the movement in Florida to pass school choice legislation,” said Pastor Marilyn Rivera, president of the group, which includes more than 200 members. “While we support our public school system, we also strongly believe that parents should have more options when it comes to the education of their children.”