Will Florida parents have the ability to use state tuition funds for private schools? Two GOP lawmakers said yes, but there is something behind
Two Republican lawmakers from Central Florida who support a “transformational” expansion of the state’s school voucher programs have close ties to private schools that already get hundreds of thousands of dollars from families who use state scholarships to pay tuition.
Reps. Carolina Amesty, R-Windermere, and Doug Bankson, R-Apopka, who were just elected last month, both voted in committee last month for HB 1, which would allow “universal choice.” Eventually, this would mean that parents of any school-aged child would be able to get state funds to pay for private school tuition or homeschooling services.
Amesty is connected to Central Christian Academy, a private school on Hiawassee Road in west Orange County. So far this school year, the school has received at least $262,000 in scholarship money and seems eager to grow. Last week, there were about a dozen bright blue “enroll now” signs outside the school’s fence. On the school’s campus, there were also larger feather flags with the same message.
Bankson is connected to Apopka Christian Academy, a private school in the city’s downtown that has received more than $926,000 in scholarships this school year.
Amesty, who is 28 years old, didn’t answer when asked if it was right to vote on a bill that would help Central Christian Academy. But in an email, she said she strongly backs the efforts by Republicans to expand voucher programs, which give scholarships to more than 252,000 Florida students.
“School vouchers have been a goal of conservatives at least since the 1950s,” she wrote in an email.
The Orlando Sentinel emailed Bankson, who used to be on the Apopka City Council, but he didn’t answer. But his 2022 campaign website said that one of his top goals was to make sure that parents “have the choice to send their children to whichever school best gives them the chance to reach their potential.”
Scholarship programs in Florida are both well-known and controversial. Supporters say they give parents options besides public schools and follow the belief that “education funding should follow students, not bureaucracies,” as Amnesty wrote in an email.
Critics, on the other hand, say that voucher programs take money away from public schools and give it to religious schools, some of which discriminate against LGBTQ students, and private schools that don’t have to meet state standards for teacher credentials, academic lessons, or facilities, among other things.
Ben Wilcox, who runs research for the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida, said that he didn’t think Amesty and Bankson did anything wrong by voting for the bill. He said that lawmakers don’t have to stay away from voting on bills unless they personally stand to gain from them.
But he also said, “I don’t think it looks good for the Legislature, because it looks like a conflict of interest, at least to the public.”
Amesty said on her 2022 campaign website that she owns and runs Central Christian Academy, a K–12 school that shares a three-building campus with Central Christian University, which was started by her father in 2003. In the state’s private school directory, she is listed as the main person to talk to about the academy.
A school official said that the K–12 school was also started by her father. It opened in 2018 and has about 85 students. Step Up For Students, the private group that runs most of Florida’s scholarships, says that at least 65 of these students use state scholarships to pay for their tuition.
When asked what she did at the K–12 school last week, Amesty wrote in an email that she wasn’t an owner but was on the board of directors for the school.
On the same day, the reference to her ownership was taken off of the website for her campaign. The school’s website was also changed. It used to say that it was “part of Central Christian University.” The signs along Hiawassee Road were taken down on Sunday.
Amesty said that the websites were changed because the Orlando Sentinel asked questions and she and other school officials decided that the wording “created some confusion.” When asked about the signs, the school didn’t answer.
Amesty said that the school and the university are two different things, and that the university pays her.
Amesty’s website, on the other hand, showed her working at the school. On her website, there are several pictures of her in classrooms. In one, she is reading a book to students, and in another, she is kneeling next to students’ desks. She said on the site that she was a “educator” in another place.
Amesty graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2019 and is now an executive vice president at Central Christian University, where she will make $107,000 in 2021, according to forms she filled out during her 2022 campaign.
The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs from the U.S. Department of Education shows that Central Christian University is not an accredited school.
The two organizations that her pastor father, Juan Amesty, started are very close to each other.
According to records from the Orange County Property Appraiser’s office and the state’s Division of Corporations, a holding corporation owns the nearly five-acre property where they both live. Amesty and her father are listed as officers of the corporation.
In the corporate records for both the school and the university, Amesty, her father, and her mother are all listed as officers.
Amesty lives with her parents in a house in Windermere that cost $1 million and was bought by Central Christian University last year.
In October, her Democratic opponent, Allie Braswell, said it was wrong for Amesty to live in and register to vote from a home owned by the university. As a non-profit religious organization, the university is exempt from income taxes and most property taxes, so the home is owned by the university.
At the time, Amesty said that Central Christian giving her father a house to live in as president was the same as Rollins College giving its president a house.
Property records show that the Windermere home is 5,400 square feet and has a pool and spa. Central Christian bought it for $1.33 million in March 2022.
Bankson and his wife are pastors at the church they started, Victory Church World Outreach Center. The church owns the nearby Apopka Christian Academy, which is close by. Bankson said in a video on his 2022 campaign website that he started the school.
Bankson told the Orlando Sentinel’s editorial board in August that there are about 270 students at Apopka Christian and that the school wants to grow.
He said, “We just bought land for a bigger campus because people want those options.”
Step Up data shows that at least 257 of Apopka Christian’s students get money from the state.
During the 2022 campaign, Amesty and Bankson, like many other Republicans, spoke out in favor of school vouchers.
Sentinel reporters asked to tour the campuses of both Central Christian Academy and Apopka Christian Academy, but neither school said yes.
According to the school’s website, the annual tuition at Central Christian Academy is $12,000. The school also charges extra fees for books, transportation, and tests. It talks about how great its small classes are.
The school’s director of education, Samuel Torres, wrote in an email that parents send their kids to CCA so they can get a personalized, high-quality education based on Christian values.
Apopka Christian’s website says that the school’s “Christ-centered curriculum” costs $7,400 per year in tuition and fees.
The church pays Bankson’s salary. In 2021, he made $96,410 for his work there, according to the form he filled out for his 2022 campaign.
On its website, the church says that Christians “must turn away” from “homosexuality” and “sexual immorality.” It’s not clear how the church’s beliefs affect school policy.
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Bankson is also the vice president of the Peacemakers Institute, a non-profit group that offers theology classes and promotes “biblically conservative” views. The group’s website has an article that says public schools are unsafe and don’t do a good job, and that they are to blame for a lot of problems in society.
In late January, the bill made its first stop in a committee, where the two representatives from Central Florida voted on it. Thursday, another committee will talk about the bill. A similar bill passed its first vote in the Senate on Tuesday.
Both the House Speaker, Paul Renner, and the Senate President, Kathleen Passidomo, support the two bills, so it is likely that they will pass in some form. The GOP controls the Legislature.
Both bills would get rid of the income requirements that make it hard for low-income families to apply for Florida’s two largest scholarship programs.
Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, is the sponsor of the House bill. Amesty and more than 20 other lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors. During the Jan. 26 meeting, Rep. Tuck said that the bill would be “transformational” for students in the state.