A Senate subcommittee advanced a sweeping proposal on Thursday that would dramatically transform Florida’s school voucher programs.
The measure, SB 48, seeks to broaden school voucher eligibility and allow parents to use taxpayer-backed education savings accounts to cover private school tuition and other costs.
Sponsored by Republican Sen. Manny Diaz, the bill cleared the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education along a party-line vote.
The 158-page bill proposes wrapping five voucher programs into two.
The measure would transfer students receiving scholarships through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the Hope Scholarship Program to the Family Empowerment Scholarship.
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.
The intent, Diaz says, is to “streamline” the process.
Notably, that program would allow families in all state scholarship programs to have an education savings account. The savings accounts would permit families to spend the funding on preapproved services, equipment, and private school tuition.
The bill’s proponents argue the changes 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.
“I still believe the parent is the best decision-maker for the child,” Diaz said.
Opponents, meanwhile, fear the proposal will shortchange public education, particularly in struggling districts.
“I just think we can do better by our traditional public schools, and we bring everybody up,” said Democratic Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville. “I don’t see that happening in this bill. I think it creates more division than anything in certain neighborhoods. Neighborhoods have been totally left out of upward mobility because nobody cares.”
Others, including Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa, contend that now is not the time for big changes.
“We’re amidst a pandemic,” Cruz said. “Schools and enrollments are all over the place, and academic learning, in my opinion, is truly in disarray. Instead, we launch a whole new program in front of millions of unemployed parents. I just think it’s reckless to do this right now.”
Diaz’s proposal moves next to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
If signed into law, the bill would take effect at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.