Ep. 389: What’s Up with Florida Catholic Schools

September 26, 2023

In this edition of EdChoice Chats, host Mike McShane talks with Ron Matus, director of research and special projects for Step Up For Students, and Lauren May, director of advocacy for Step Up For Students.

Matus and May have a new paper called “Why Catholic Schools in Florida are Growing: Five Things You Need to Know.” We dive into this paper and the five things we need to know!

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and this is part of my series, What’s Up with Mike McShane, where I talk to interesting people in the education space to learn what’s up about a particular topic, a place, a school, a bit of research. And I am joined by two wonderful people today, friends of the program, friends of the organization, Ron Matus and Lauren May.

Ron is the director of research and special projects for Step Up For Students down in Florida. And Lauren is the director of advocacy for Step Up For Students, and they have a new paper out called Why Catholic Schools in Florida are Growing: Five Things You Need to Know. So they’re going to help me today answer the question, what’s up with Catholic schools in Florida? So it’s one of those things, you have a paper whose title is Five Things You Need to Know, and I think was it Anton Chekhov, the writer who says, “If you hang a gun on the wall in the beginning of your story, if it hasn’t fired by the second act, you failed.” So you can’t leave something hanging out there. So when you say there’s five things that people need to know, it’s hanging out there. So I’m curious, what are the five things that people need to know about Catholic schools in Florida?

Lauren May: So Mike, the five things you need to know about Catholic schools in Florida are that we’re seeing amazing growth and compared to other states across the nation, especially other big states, so the 10 biggest states with Catholic school enrollment, Florida is actually the only one of those 10 that’s seen growth in their enrollment numbers over the past 10 years. So that’s pretty significant. We’re also seeing a lot of diversity and that’s personally my favorite part of the paper because it really shows in our Catholic schools, actually one of the most amazing pieces of the paper to me, is that our Catholic schools in Florida are now a tick more diverse than our public schools, and we also are serving many, many more students with special needs. And so I think that’s a really innovative thing we’re seeing here in Florida.

The third thing you need to know is that we have choice. So we have wonderful choice programs here in Florida and they’re continuing to grow. I’m sure we’ll talk today about how we really have exploded with the amount of choice here in Florida as of July one. The fourth thing you need to know is that there’s competition. In Florida, we have one of the most robust school choice systems in the nation. We have charter schools, we have amazing magnet schools, we have amazing IB programs, and we have Catholic schools and then we have over 2000 private schools across the state for families to choose from. So with all of that choice becomes competition. And so that’s an important piece to know.

And the fifth thing you need to know is that we’re seeing a lot of innovation in our Catholic schools. We’re seeing Catholic schools open that are doing dual language. We’re seeing Catholic schools open that are focusing on classical education. We’re seeing Catholic schools open that are focusing on STREAM, which stands for science, technology, religion, engineering, arts and math. So just lots of really great things happening in Florida. So those are the five things you need to know and I hope that you’ll read the paper and learn more about them.

Mike McShane: Fantastic. Look, growth, diversity, choice, competition and innovation, five for five. Those are five wonderful things. That’s great. I love to see it. Great to have there. And a STREAM, I got to tell you, that is a new one for me. There was STEM and then there was STEAM and I was thinking, it’s tough, STEAM basically encompasses all of human knowledge. If you go between science, technology, the arts, engineering, mathematics, there’s not a whole lot left over, but someone found something left over, religion. And so now it’s STREAM. Okay, that’s wonderful. Well, that’s great to hear it. I think y’all probably know this, but I’m a Catholic school homer. I was educated by Catholic schools. I taught in a Catholic school, did my teacher preparation through Notre Dame’s ACE program, the Alliance for Catholic Education, and then have been involved with them in any way they’d have me ever since.

So this is all wonderful. This is great news. I’m just laying my bias out there ahead of time. But you cited some things in the paper as well, like the really promising research that’s been done on Catholic schools, particularly looking at Catholic schools that are participants in the voucher program or the tax credit scholarship program in Florida, David Figlio work that shows that students that are attending those schools are doing fantastic. So I think by and large, this is just a wonderful positive story. So maybe we’ll kind of break some of these things down. When we talk about the growth, maybe to give people sort of a picture, how many kids are in Catholic schools in Florida? How has that changed over time?

Lauren May: So for Catholic schools in Florida, we have been in the 80,000 range for a long time, and so it ranges between 75,000 to 80 to 85. So last year was a big year because we hit that big 85,000 number. I think we hit 88,000 actually here in Florida, which was a really big number. And I’m excited to share that I’m just getting the numbers for this school year and every single diocese in our state is seeing another enrollment increase. So we’re just continuing to see parents making the choice to put their children in our Catholic schools in our state. And so it’s very exciting.

Ron Matus: Percentage is up, if I could just add this real quick, it’s up about 4% over the past 10 years, which sounds modest. It is modest, but relative to what we’re seeing with Catholic school enrollment trends in the rest of the country, it’s dramatically encouraging, I think. We’re still seeing the same trendlines for Catholic school enrollment around the country over the past decade that we’ve seen for many decades now. New York is down another 30% over the past 10 years, New Jersey, 33%, Pennsylvania, 25%. So to actually have growth is pretty fantastic. And I think Lauren referenced the latest numbers, our paper came out right before the latest numbers hit and Lauren’s been gathering those up now, we may have another 4% growth in one year this year. So those trend lines continue to go up. And I imagine with the expansion of choice, the dramatic expansion of choice, that will continue to be the case.

Mike McShane: Yeah, so that’s worth diving into. So I would imagine a fair number of people who are listening to this podcast, given the host and host organization would have a relatively good understanding, but for the person that maybe is listening to this podcast because they like Catholic schools or whatever, can you just sketch out what school choice looks like in Florida, particularly on the private school side and maybe around those kind of numbers as well? How many students are participating in these various programs? What are the sort of benefits that are available to students? What do those programs look like in Florida?

Ron Matus: So we have multiple programs and we’ve had multiple programs for private school choice going back 25 years. I guess there’s two main buckets. We’ve had what, until recently, were the income-based scholarships. We had a couple of those, I don’t know how much in the weeds you want to go. And then we had a couple for students with special needs and between those programs, last year statewide, we served 250,000 students, so about 180,000 were using the income-based scholarships, about 70,000 were using the scholarships for students with special needs. This year, we expect to serve north of 350,000 students, a big one-year leap. We’ve already processed and approved, I think Lauren knows the latest numbers, but I think somewhere about 410,000 applications have already been approved. Now, not every student will use that scholarship, but a good number of will. So we’re expecting to go from 250,000 to 350,000.

HB 1 of course changed everything because now there is no more income threshold to be eligible for school choice scholarships. Even before HB 1, though, I think this is important to point out, probably 70% of the families in Florida were eligible for the income-based scholarships alone. So HB 1 going to universal eligibility, that is a big leap, but it wasn’t everything. We were going from 70% to a 100%, but it’s been a continual expansion over 25 years. It’s like the eligibility has constantly expanded. The amount of the scholarship has constantly expanded, which I think is very important and overlooked sometimes. And then the total pot of money available for the scholarships, that has grown over time too. And so all of that adds up to just more and more families being able to choose exactly what they want for their kids, and guess what? Many of them do like Catholic schools, and that’s why our Catholic schools are flourishing.

Mike McShane: That’s a really interesting point that you brought up there because I think obviously there’s been a lot of growth in school choice and big program passages around the country just in the last year and even maybe stretch it out two or three years where we’ve seen even more, and I think some people who haven’t been paying super close attention would be like, “Oh my God, this is so new, or this is untested or we’ve never tried.” And it’s like, “Actually, Florida’s been doing this for a really long time.”

And I remember actually, I was on a panel with someone who was sort of an academic who studied these things and was talking about, in my ideal world, you’d try something and you’d test it and then you’d make it a little bit bigger and then you’d make it a little bit bigger and then you’d make it a little bit bigger. I’m kind of like, “Isn’t that kind of what happened?” I was like, “Okay, maybe not in a perfect regimented way that if you were controlling things in a lab you could, but really that’s kind of the Florida story,” that as you mentioned, every year a few more kids have participated, a few more schools have participated, a little bit more money was made available, the eligibility change. But this is something that’s been slowly but surely happening. So by the time now we’re seeing universal eligibility, we’re seeing ESAs with multiple uses and all of that stuff, that’s built on a very, very long run, a deeply poured foundation, right?

Ron Matus: I agree with you completely. It’s been an organic process of growth for 25 years. It didn’t all happen at once. It happened, I wouldn’t say slowly either. Historically, it’s been the blink of an eye to go from assigned schools, the old system, to now where everybody’s eligible for a choice scholarship. That happened over the course of a generation. So historically, I still think it was pretty quick. But it was an organic natural process, a constant steady expansion. And the cool thing about it I think, is that all along the way, we gathered evidence about what was working and what wasn’t. And I think we saw a lot of things work, and there have been all these dire predictions every time a new choice program was passed or expanded that the sky would fall. Jason Bedrick-

Mike McShane: [Inaudible].

Ron Matus: Yeah. Oh my gosh, the best paper ever. I read that and I was like, that’s been my experience in Florida for the past 20 years, paying attention to what’s happening on the landscape. None of that happened. None of that happened. Instead, more families got to choose options that they wanted. Outcomes got better. Parental satisfaction got better, more options grew on the landscape, more and better options all the time. The parade of horrible did not happen. So that’s been one good thing about seeing this unfold slowly, you got to gather in the evidence as it was happening and it was all good. It was evidence that allowed folks to continue expanding because they could say, “Well, why would we stop? It seems to be working.”

Mike McShane: So I wanted to talk about innovation, something that you all highlight in the paper. Again, I put myself out there as a Catholic school homer who’s been involved in this for longer than I would like to admit. I would like to pretend it’s been a shorter period of time since I was a Catholic school teacher, but with each year it’s just that much longer. But one of the things that actually would frustrate me about Catholic schools and even the institutions that I was participating in was a lack of innovation. This long-term trend decline in enrollment closing schools wasn’t something that happened that surprised people. This was like a train that was coming down the tracks that everyone was seeing and that the human capital model of Catholic schools and the way they were built at their zenith wasn’t sustainable. Even some of the tuition models and all those things just weren’t sustainable in the communities where Catholic schools existed and where communities changed or economics changed or demographics changed or any of those.

It’s like, well, some things might have to change to move those, and there was not nearly enough change happening, and I think lots of schools probably closed that didn’t ultimately need to close, that if someone would’ve gone in there and would’ve actually recognized, “Oh, the demands from folks have changed, we can actually make some adjustments.” But instead said, “We’re going to do things the way we’ve always done them.” And they did that right into the ground. I’m encouraged to hear some examples that you had in there of Catholic schools that are actually innovating, that are trying new and different things. Do you have a couple examples of those that you could share?

Lauren May: Yeah, I would love to. My favorite part of the work that I do is getting to visit our schools and see all of the amazing things that are happening and then talk to the families about how impactful the education is. So one of my favorite schools and favorite stories from our paper is about Christ the King Catholic School, which is in Jacksonville, Florida. And they were really struggling about 10 years ago, and they actually had two teachers per grade level and they had to go down to one. And it was a really hard time for the school. Exactly what you were talking about, Mike, the demographics in the neighborhood changed, and it just was a challenging time. So the principal there said, “This is not going to work. We’ve got to fix this. We have a beautiful school, we have a beautiful location. We have this great big building. We’ve got to do something to attract families.”

And so that’s when she got the idea to work on the STREAM, the science technology, engineering, religion, arts and math program, and it is one of the most amazing schools that I’ve ever been to. The children do different activities, different STEM activities in each grade level, like one grade level grows blueberries, and then they use the blueberries to eat in the cafeteria. They also use the blueberries to feed the chickens and another grade level takes care of the chickens and the chickens lay eggs. The eggs go to the homeless shelter. They just do all of these really cool things that are drawing parents in. And so what I’m seeing across the state is schools that are willing to listen to parents who say, “Hey, I’ve got this kid who might not be typically developing, they have ADHD and they need some accommodations. Can you work with us?” The schools that say yes, parents are flooding towards them.

And thankfully in Florida, what we’re seeing is a lot of our principals are saying yes to the parents and they’re saying, “Let’s try it. Let’s see.” And we’re seeing when they’re doing that and when they have that great partnership parent to school, it’s just amazing. The enrollment is increasing. And even with all the choice in Florida, even with access to an educational savings account, families are choosing our Catholic schools because they’re like, “That’s what I want. I want a partner in my child’s education. I want to work with this school. This school is doing amazing things for families and for kids, and I want my kid to be impacted.”

Mike McShane: I’m really glad that you brought up ESAs because I’m curious about this, about how Catholic schools exist within an ESA program. Does tuition generally take up all of the family’s ESA dollars? Because I mean Catholic schools have a reputation for being lean and mean and lower costs and finding other ways to subsidize outside of that fundraising and parish contributions and all that sort of stuff. But I’m curious, does basically all of the ESA dollars go to that one entity? Do families have some money left over to maybe supplement with some tutoring or others? How are y’all seeing that actually play out on the ground?

Lauren May: So it really just happened this year. So the law went into effect on July one, so we haven’t really gotten to see it go into effect just yet. But what I know is Catholic school tuition in Florida can range from like $6,000 per kid up to $30,000 if it’s a high school in Miami. They’re much more expensive down there, so it really depends. But the scholarships are worth about $8,000 per kid for the universal one where everybody’s eligible. And then for the one for kids with special needs, they’re worth about $10,000. And so I have a lot of friends with kids on the scholarship who go to a Catholic school, and what they do is they might pay the $8,000 tuition using their scholarship, their ESA, and then they’ll have $2,000 left over to pay for tutoring and therapy.

And so the greatest thing that I’ve seen with our Catholic schools across the state is that they’re really working with their families. And if a family were to go to their principal and say, “Listen, I’ve got this $10,000, I need to use it to pay tuition, but also, my kid has to get tutoring after school in order to be able to be successful. Can you work with me?” The Catholic schools are saying, “Yes, we will. We can find a way to make the tuition amount work so that your child can get the other services that they need with their scholarship dollars.” And so that’s been a really great blessing for families across the state.

Mike McShane: So I would love to know just as you all are at the heart of this big expansion that’s happening right now, what’s it been like? What have the last two months been like? Has it been like drinking from a fire hose with so many families wanting to apply and I have to imagine some order of magnitude larger, wanting to just know what’s going on? Maybe setting aside this paper though, it obviously intersects in some ways. I’m just sort of curious what have the last 60 days been like?

Lauren May: They’ve been very busy and very fun. I get to talk to parents every single day. They will call and ask a question. I talk to schools. A lot of our schools, especially the Catholic schools and even some of our dioceses did meetings for their parents where they would have someone from Step Up come in and explain how to apply and what to do. And then we even did some Zoom meetings like on diocesan Facebook pages so families could just log in and watch. We created a lot of videos. So what we’ve tried to do is use technology to our advantage to reach as many people as possible.

But what we’ve seen in Florida, especially, is that families really want that personal touch. They like to know, did I do everything correctly? Do I understand what I’m supposed to do? Is my child going to get the scholarship? And so we are seeing thousands and thousands of calls come into our call center. So that’s been the most interesting part to me is the need for parents to get information. Thankfully here at Step Up, we’ve been able to staff a really great call center so when families call in, they can get those answers, but that’s been very impactful, is having a place, a resource for families to go when they have questions.

Mike McShane: And when you’re hearing from families, I would be curious what they’re looking for because I know there was research on Catholic schools in the past that when you ask parents, why do you choose Catholic schools? School discipline was always one that they’re really seen as places where students are safe and where classrooms are orderly and where learning can happen. They have a reputation for having high academic standards, college preparation, all of those things. So even taken narrowly about Catholic schools and the folks that you talk to, but even more broadly and the work that Step Up does, when you’re hearing from parents and they’re calling up or folks are saying, “Hey, we want to participate in this program. I’m looking for a school that blank, that’s doing something,” is it, I’m looking for a school that’s safe, I’m looking for a school with better outcomes? What are people saying as they’re going through this process?

Ron Matus: Well, I’ve heard the same basic things the entire time I’ve been at Step Up and even before I joined Step Up when I was a reporter and I was talking to scholarship parents. It seems to be core academics, safety, you hear that a lot, and then character education. Those things have always predominated, and I don’t think that’s changed much. COVID added some things, the culture war stuff recently added some things, but I don’t think things have deviated too much from those three basics, core academics, safety and character education. And I think that’s what parents are mostly looking for. And there’s a lot of private schools out there and other schools that give them that. I think everybody’s had to up their game and do better on all of those things because of choice. But certainly, I think that’s why a lot of parents are gravitating towards choice options.

Lauren May: And I would just add that the number one thing I hear when parents call me and say, “I need a new educational setting for my child is I want them to succeed. I want them to get an education where they can contribute to society when they finish.” And so that seems to be the overall message that I’m hearing. A lot of the families that are wanting a Catholic school are choosing it because it aligns with their values and it is a safe environment. So I hear that as well. But overall, it’s I want my child to succeed. I want them to be a contributing member of society, and I think this scholarship will give me more choices to find the place that will best meet their needs.

Mike McShane: I want to ask a last question, but in two ways, which is looking towards the future. So the first way is more narrowly looking at Catholic schools in Florida. What do you think the next five to 10 years has in store for Catholic schools? And then the second half of the question will just be schools, education in Florida in general, what do you think the next five to 10 years holds? So we’ll maybe take the first bit of it, which is just looking specifically at Catholic schools in Florida, what do you think the next five to 10 years looks like?

Ron Matus: I’m looking for the same thing or looking to see how the same things unfold with Catholic schools and other traditional schools, whether they be public or private. I think some people maybe were pleasantly surprised by how district schools responded to the competition from charter schools and vouchers. So in the first wave of choice, that came, that happened, charter schools blew up everywhere. We’ve got 700 something of them. Private schools expanded massively, especially over the past 10 years, and districts did respond. Now, some responded better than others, but the largest engines of choice creation in Florida at the moment are districts. They’re the ones who went and created a ton of magnet schools, career academies, they added IB programs, Cambridge programs, and many of them are very high quality and many of them parents really like. So they did respond, and I think effectively in many cases, to the changing landscape.

What will they do now that we’re moving away from school choice and we’re going to education choice, now that every parent can get an ESA, now that a parent can mix things up a la carte and do really course choice instead of school choice, how will everybody respond to that? How will the districts respond to that? And how will the private schools, who many of them are more or less traditional, also like public schools, how will they respond? Will Catholic schools and other private schools adapt to this environment where parents can pick things a la carte, where parents can maybe want a hybrid school or parents maybe want to homeschool and just pick and choose a couple classes from this school here and that school there and that school over there? I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m really curious to see how everybody responds to this movement away from school choice and to education choice.

Lauren May: Yeah, I agree. I think we’re going to see, at least in Florida based on the history of our Catholic schools and how much innovation we’ve been seeing specifically over these past 10 years, I think they will rise to the occasion and continue to innovate and find new and better ways to serve families because ultimately, a Catholic education is the number one way to evangelize the church. And I think that our church leaders across the state and really across the nation are saying, “This is our opportunity. We’ve got to get more kids in here. So if it might be that we’re going to let some homeschool kids come in and participate in a PE class, that might be some innovation that we’re not currently seeing, but we will see now that we have educational savings accounts.” So I’m excited to watch. I think we’ll be able to know a lot more in the next five years or so. So maybe we’ll have a second paper in five years with an update on what we’re seeing here in the state.

Mike McShane: And Lauren, when you look at the schools in general, Ron, the classic journalistic style there, he put a lot into a small number. We answered multiple questions there. But I’m curious, Lauren, your thoughts about schools writ large in Florida, growth of these types, models, innovation, competition. What do you see happening there?

Lauren May: Well, I think Ron said it really well. What we’ve seen over the past 20 years is our public schools have responded and they’ve come in. And what I’ve seen personally, I have a lot of friends up here in Jacksonville that have their children at some really neat and innovative charter schools. And so we’re seeing lots of new types of education coming in. And so I think we’re going to continue to see that. I am confident in our entire system that our schools are going to respond and they’re going to say, “Wow, if the Catholic school can do that, then why can’t we? Why don’t we open a STREAM, STEM school, STEAM school, whatever it might be, a classical school?” So I’m excited to see what types of new types of schools we have come in. And I also think we’re going to see a lot more virtual programs and virtual type of schools coming into serve students, maybe on a part-time or even full-time basis. So excited to see what grows in that aspect as well.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. So the paper is Why Catholic Schools in Florida Are Growing: Five Things You Need to Know published by Step Up For Students. Ron, Lauren, thank you so much for joining the podcast today.

Ron Matus: Thank you, Mike. This was awesome. Thanks so much.

Mike McShane: Well, that was a wonderful conversation. I hope all of you enjoyed that as much as I did. It’s fascinating to see any place in the country where Catholic schools are seeing 4% growth. As you see in their paper, they do this in graphs, but if you have even a passing understanding of the history of Catholic schools in America, growth has not been a term used with Catholic schools for a very long time. So seeing them, and especially in the state as large as Florida, I think it’s a really interesting trend that I think as Ron brought up, where other states are seeing over the same time period, 30% declines, seeing 4% growth is quite impressive and potentially seeing that into the future. So check out that paper. I thought it was really interesting. Great stuff in there. And as always, I will put in the plug for EdChoice’s stuff, head over to www.edchoice.org for all of our great content, follow us on social media, subscribe to this podcast, yada, yada, yada, all of those great things.

Thank you so much to our wonderful podcast editors, Jacob and Eve, who put this together and make it sound wonderful. It wouldn’t sound nearly as good without them. So thank you very much and thank you to all of you for listening to the podcast, this whole series of EdChoice Chats, whether you’re listening to me interview interesting people, our legal team talking, our state teams talking about what’s going on in states, our polling podcasts, any of that stuff, it’s always great to have you and I particularly enjoy when you tune into these What’s Up episodes. So thanks for spending this time with me and us, and I look forward to chatting with all of you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.