The Senate Education Committee advanced a sweeping proposal Thursday that further promotes Florida’s school choice options.
The measure, SB 48, passed along a party-line 6-4 vote. Sen. Manny Diaz, a South Florida Republican, is the bill sponsor.
The bill moves next to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
“Families have a variety of needs and not all children succeed in the same type of educational setting,” Diaz said in press release. “Whether it is public, private, charter, home school, virtual, or some variation of those options, parents – not government – should determine where and how to educate their child.”
Diaz continued: “This legislation also modifies the priority funding list to ensure we support Florida’s students who are most in need first. Priority is given to students who are renewing their scholarships or are retained on the waitlist, students in foster care, victims of bullying and harassment, participants’ siblings, and lower income families.”
The bill also would merge the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities and the Gardiner Scholarship Program. Together, they would create the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship Program.
That program would allow families in all state scholarship programs to have an education savings account. Currently, only students enrolled in the Gardiner Scholarship program are allowed such flexibility.
The accounts allow families to spend their money on pre-approved services, equipment and private school tuition. Approved expenditures include electronic devices, curriculum, part-time tutoring programs, educational supplies, equipment, and therapies that insurance programs do not cover.
The bill would expand McKay-Gardiner services to include music, art, theater programs and summer education programs. The scholarship programs are also available to homeschool students and those enrolled in eligible private schools.
Furthermore, bullying victims at district schools who transfer to private schools via the Hope Scholarship Program would also be served by Family Empowerment Scholarship Program. They would receive the same spending flexibility.
SB 48 proponents argue the bill would make it easier for parents to navigate the state’s complex school-voucher system.
Moreover, school-choice advocates contend that parents can best determine their child’s personal needs.
A mother and son, Lamisha Stephens and Marquavis Wilson, were among those advocating for the measure on Tuesday.
During public testimony, Stephens said Wilson, her son, was bullied in grade school because of his sexual identity.
“It got so bad that Marquavis told me that he wanted to end his life,” the mother told lawmakers.
Stephens said Wilson relocated to a preparatory school through a tax credit scholarship.
“That changed everything,” Stephens said. “Now Marquavis is safe. He can be himself. And he’s learning again like he’s supposed to. I just want to let you know that a school choice scholarship probably saved my son’s life.”
During Wilson’s public testimony, he told lawmakers, “I don’t have to fight anymore. I know they care about me and I can be myself.”
Meanwhile, opponents fear the proposal may shift Florida public schools toward a universal school-choice system.
“What they want to do is dismantle public education,” Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston told reporters. “That’s what’s being done, step by step by step.”
What’s more, opponents contended public education deserves more attention amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thurston pointed out that Florida’s Constitution requires a well-funded public education system.
“Mark this as the date that we see the decline in public education,” Thurston added.
If signed into law, the bill would take effect at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.