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School choice expansion bill moves ahead as more companies halt donations to voucher program

Step Up For Students would only have to submit to an audit every three years.

Legislation expanding school choice scholarship programs passed the House Education Committee Thursday.

There are currently five grants that allow eligible students to attend private schools using state funding: the John McKay Scholarship, the Gardiner Scholarship, the Family Empowerment Scholarship, Florida Tax Credit and the Hope Scholarship.

Committee Chair Jennifer Mae Sullivan is sponsoring the proposed committee bill (PCB EDC 20-01). Most significantly, it boosts the cap for the Family Empowerment Scholarship from 18,000 students to 28,000 students. Despite raising some concerns, Democrats who serve on the Education Committee all voted in favor of the proposal.

After seeing the popularity of the Family Empowerment Scholarship, House leaders are looking to go beyond increasing enrollment and also make eligibility changes.

For instance, it would remove a requirement about students enrolling in public schools before becoming eligible for the scholarships — a change that Sullivan said would benefit first- and second-grade students. It would also let wealthier families apply for the Family Empowerment program if five percent of vouchers have not been awarded.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said last year the Family Empowerment Scholarship program was needed to address the unmet demands of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, the state’s largest voucher program.

“My hope is that parents are empowered and not bound by their ZIP code on where to send their kids to school, but rather can make the best choice for them,” Sullivan said.

Some Democrats raised concerns about a disparity in accountability measures between traditional public schools and private schools that get state scholarship money.

Rep. Delores Hogan Johnson, a Fort Pierce Democrat, said she worries the state is stripping money from public schools while requiring little accountability for private schools.

“It’s like a warfare going on,” she said. “But I would like to see public education be given the opportunity to grow along with these choice schools because I know that students, for whatever reason, come out of these schools of choice and go back into public education.”

The legislation would also reduce the frequency of state audits of non-profit organizations that administer voucher programs for the state.

The bill says the Florida auditor general must audit the organizations at least once every three years, instead of every year.

State audits have shed light on some issues with how one of the non-profit organizations, Step Up for Students, put at risk scholarships of hundreds of students.

A report released last September found that Step Up failed to properly check applicants’ household-income eligibility for the Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Auditors also said 583 students with special needs who were eligible for awards under the Gardiner Scholarship Program saw a delay in funding due to a “processing error” involving enrollment documentation. The error was fixed, auditors said.

Companies who donate to the Step Up for Students program, otherwise known as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, are doing some soul-searching in the wake of an investigation by the Orlando Sentinel showing that some private Christian schools have policies that discriminate against LGBTQ students. Corporations that have pulled their donations this week include Wyndham Destinations, Fifth Third Bank, Wells Fargo and Cigar City Brewing.

Sullivan said the recommendation to increase the time period between audits for the Step Up for Students program came from the Auditor General. But Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith are criticizing that move, saying the program already lacks transparency.

No one from the public or members of the Education committee expressed any concerns about private schools discriminating against LGBTQ students or their families. 

The Hope Scholarship program, which is designed to serve children who have been bullied in public schools, would also see some changes. House leaders want to mandate an annual review of bullying-prevention programs in public schools from which 10 or more students have decided to transfer with Hope scholarships.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Written By

Sarah Mueller has extensive experience covering public policy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010. She began her career covering local government in Texas, Georgia and Colorado. She returned to school in 2016 to earn a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting. Since then, she’s worked in public radio covering state politics in Illinois, Florida and Delaware. If you'd like to contact her, send an email to sarah@floridapolitics.com.

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