A bill that would restructure Florida’s school voucher network cleared its final committee stop Thursday, undergoing several amendments that ushered notable changes.
The proposal (HB 7045) aims to repeal the Gardiner Scholarship Program and McKay Scholarship Program and transition the participating students with special needs into the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, which is an income-based scholarship.
Republican Rep. Randy Fine of Palm Bay is the bill sponsor.
“We’ve created a complexity for parents that’s simply unnecessary,” Fine said. “This reduces the complexity without taking away any choice. The same options that are available today will continue to be available in the future.”
Lawmakers heard from several speakers, many of whom are parents, who fear the legislation would reduce family benefits.
Notably, Camille Gardiner, wife of former Senate President Andy Gardiner, encouraged lawmakers to shoot down the bill during public testimony.
Gardiner, who represents the Down Syndrome Foundation of Florida, said the bill will usher “many unintended consequences.”
“This will be the beginning of chipping away at something this Legislature set up to support our fellow citizens that have children with the most significant disabilities,” Gardiner said.
Fine’s proposal advanced with three self-sponsored amendments.
One amendment expanded the Family Empowerment eligibility to military dependents and siblings of students enrolled in the scholarship program.
Under another amendment, FES eligibility for low-income families would broaden to 300% of the poverty level.
“There are two truths to this bill,” Republican Rep. Chris Latvala said. “The first truth is more families will be served. The second truth is more kids with the unique abilities will be served.”
Moreover, the bill now allows FES funds to be put toward internet expenses and purchasing a digital device.
Throughout the committee, Fine offered reassurances to lawmakers and parents.
“No child who is on the McKay or Gardiner scholarships will get one dollar less if this bill passes,” Fine said. “The vast majority of them will get thousands more.”
Fine’s proposal further increases voucher amounts from 95% to 100% for students in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Family Empowerment Scholarship and Hope Scholarship Program.
Fine’s proposal and the Senate companion (SB 48) are now in the hands of each Chamber.
Notably, the pair contain distinct differences.
Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill would fold five programs into two.
The bill would transfer students receiving scholarships through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the Hope Scholarship Program to the Family Empowerment Scholarship.
The bill would also merge the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities and the Gardiner Scholarship Program. Together, they would create the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship Program.
Moreover, the Senate bill would allow families in all scholarship programs to have educational savings accounts.
The accounts would permit families to spend the funding on pre-approved services, equipment, and private school tuition.
If signed into law, either proposal would take effect July 1.