Despite staunch opposition from Democrats, the Senate on Monday passed a bill along to Gov. Ron DeSantis that would dramatically overhaul the state’s school voucher system.
The Republican-controlled Senate OK’d the bill (HB 7045) with a 25-14 vote, paving the way for the largest school choice expansion effort in Florida history.
Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican, is the bill sponsor. Republican Sen. Manny Diaz sponsored the Senate companion.
“We do not want Florida families, who are already paying taxes that fund our K-12 education system, to have to choose between furthering their professional careers and qualifying for school choice scholarships,” Diaz said. “This legislation increases household income eligibility for our scholarship programs to ensure more Florida families have access to these options.”
The bill would repeal the Gardiner Scholarship Program and McKay Scholarship Program and transition students into the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.
The repealed programs originally served special needs students. The Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, a low-income grant, would broaden to include students with special needs and military children.
Proponents contend parents and students will benefit under the changes. Under the proposal, they point out, a family of four earning less than $100,000 a year would be eligible for enrollment.
The bill also increases voucher amounts from 95% to 100% for students in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Family Empowerment Scholarship and Hope Scholarship Program.
Scholarship funds could also be used for internet expenses and digital devices.
Critics, meanwhile, describe the expansion as another blow to traditional public schools.
Speaking against the bill, Democratic Sen. Loranne Ausley warned that “unintended consequences” are on the horizon.
“Bit by bit, cut by cut, these vouchers or scholarships or whatever you want to call them are slowly killing our public schools,” Ausley said.
Florida Republicans have long championed school choice. Parents, they contend, can best determine a child’s unique educational needs.
“Every parent should have the right and the choice to send their to children to whatever school they see fit,” Republican Sen. Joe Gruters said.
Notably, Republicans pushed back against claims that public and private schools are at odds.
“I don’t understand why we still insist this dichotomy between choice and public education,” said Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley. “These are not at war with each other.”
If signed into law, the bill would take effect July 1.
Senate President Wilton Simpson praised the legislation’s passage.
“We want school choice to be an option for every family,” Simpson said. “This important legislation further streamlines our existing school choice scholarships, and expands eligibility for lower income families, families of students with unique abilities, adopted children, and children whose parents serve in our military.”