Members of the House readied themselves Tuesday to vote on a bill that would dramatically overhaul Florida’s school voucher network.
Sponsored by Republican Rep. Randy Fine, the bill (HB 7045) would repeal the Gardiner Scholarship Program and McKay Scholarship Program and transition students into the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.
The repealed programs serve special needs students. The Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, a low-income grant, would broaden to accept students with special needs.
Fine addressed Democratic concerns repeatedly, vowing the bill would better serve students.
“No student is hurt,” Fine said. “Many students are given more. I would never run a bill that would hurt any of these children who have special needs.”
Fine tacked on several amendments, including one that expands scholarship eligibility criteria. Under the bill, a family of four earning less than $100,000 a year is now eligible for enrollment.
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.
It would also allow scholarships funds to be put toward internet expenses and digital devices.
Despite reassurances, many Democrats including Rep. Robin Bartleman viewed the proposal unfavorably.
Bartleman, an educator, feared the legislation would undermine Florida’s pursuit of quality education. She proposed an amendment to mandate private schools satisfy public school accountability requirements.
“You can’t just give out money without any accountability,” Bartleman said.
The amendment failed.
Fine’s proposal now awaits the full consideration in the House.
In the Senate, meanwhile, the companion bill also awaits full consideration.
The pair contain distinct differences.
Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill folds 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.
The Senate bill further seeks to 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.