Legislation to expand Florida’s voucher programs that would allow parents of all income levels to send their children to private schools cleared its first committee hurdle in the House, but only after fierce criticism from opponents, who said it would erode funding for public schools.
“The point is to make every child eligible so that if something isn’t working, the parent has the opportunity to make the changes necessary so that child gets the best education,” said Rep. Kaylee Tuck, a Lake Placid Republican who is sponsoring HB 1 and chairs the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee.
The bill passed on a 13-4 vote, with Rep. Lisa Dunkley of Sunrise the only Democrat to support it.
One opponent of the bill, Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat, was able to pass an amendment to require parents who opt for the voucher program to be informed there’s no guarantee their child will be accepted into the school.
But another amendment Valdes offered was rejected. It would have capped annual tuition increases at private schools accepting vouchers at 1.5% or at the consumer price index and required participating schools to post their religious tenets, dress code and student code of conduct on their website.
“While I am disappointed my third amendment was not accepted to give Florida’s families the accountability and transparency they deserve so they make the right choice for their children, we will continue working with our Republican counterparts to ensure no student gets left behind,” Valdes said.
Another Democrat, Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville, was more vehement in her criticism of the bill after the panel rejected three of her amendments. One of the amendments would have prevented those with an income of more than $1 million per year from qualifying for the program, and another would have required participating schools not to discriminate against students on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, family status, birthplace, ancestry, culture, language or the “expression or texture of the student’s hair.”
“Our local public schools are an investment we all make to create a brighter future for students and our communities as a whole,” Nixon said. “But Florida’s GOP leadership is legislating publicly funded discrimination in education, leading to a new era of segregation. This bill will give handouts to wealthy families by redirecting public tax dollars to institutions with zero oversight and accountability while defunding public schools that serve over 90% of our students.”
Tuck said private schools must abide by federal nondiscrimination laws. However, Nixon countered that it still allows private religious schools to refuse to serve LGBTQ students and impose dress codes that ban natural stylings of African American students’ hair.
The bill is a top priority of House Speaker Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, and has two more committee stops before heading to the floor in that chamber. There’s no companion measure in the Senate yet, but Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, said she supports the measure.