School choice expansion bill advances as cost disagreements emerge
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 1/4/23-Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, during the Local Administration, Federal Affairs & Special Districts Subcommittee, Wednesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Billions of dollars stand between committee estimates and analysis from one think tank.

Two Democrats joined the majority in advancing a school choice bill through committee, as lawmakers discussed the estimated costs for expanding vouchers to all families regardless of income.

Testimony shows that sponsors of HB 1 believe the cost for offering vouchers to a new category of students — no matter how much their family income — is billions less than what the Florida Policy Institute’s analysis shows. The bill advanced in front of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Bill Subcommittee.

The wildly divergent figures emerged during a discussion of the bill that’s a principal priority of House Speaker Paul Renner. If the bill is passed, it would put Florida in the company of just a handful of other states in offering universal vouchers. A similar bill (SB 202) is now making its way through the Senate.

“Where’s the gap?” Republican Rep. Daniel Alvarez of Valrico asked of the divergent cost estimates, as he explained that he tries to consider all sides when studying up on bills.

The cost estimate discrepancies arise partly because the bill sponsors estimate half of those now attending private school without public support will take advantage of the new benefits. The measure would allow families to apply about $8,000 per student in state scholarship money to private school tuition.

The Florida Policy Institute, meanwhile, estimates that 75% of private school children now not getting the benefit of state money will take advantage of the new voucher. That’s in line with what Arizona has experienced in the first six months of offering the universal voucher, institute officials say.

Another sticking point: The committee doesn’t count the money — about $890 million, according to the Institute — that would otherwise be going to public schools as a cost of HB 1. That’s the amount the institute estimates would go to students, now in public schools, who would then go to private schools once the income limit to receive a voucher is lifted.

“This is not actually a fiscal (cost) for this type of student because public school students are already funded in the FEFP (the Florida Education Finance Program, the amount of state funds that goes to public school districts),” said Rep. Kaylee Tuck, a Lake Placid Republican who is sponsoring the bill and chairs the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee.

“So if they elect to take a scholarship for next fiscal year, they just move from being funded as a public school student to a scholarship student.”

The state Office of Economic & Demographic Research has yet to weigh in on what this voucher expansion will cost. The latest analysis posted last month shows an “indeterminate fiscal impact.”

Norín Dollard, one of the authors of the Florida Policy Institute study, appeared during public testimony to say she stands by her numbers estimating the costs, and said she would be happy to review them in more detail with lawmakers.

And Susan Woltanski, Vice Chair of the Monroe County School Board, said she believes the costs of expanding school vouchers has been vastly underestimated.

“It’s nonsensical to believe that half the families currently paying to send their children to these private schools will not apply to get the free money,” she said. “Of course they will.”

Still, expanding public funds to private schools had admirers on the committee.

“I have to tell you that I represent a section of Miami, of the urban core of Miami, that is made up of a lot of immigrant children that are arriving every day from across the border. And many of those families have called me to thank me for supporting choice in every way,” Republican Rep. Vicki Lopez said.

“They have been able to send their children to (private) schools and the parents don’t even speak English. And they have gotten incredible support because there has been choice afforded to them.”

But Pompano Beach’s Rep. Patricia Wiliams, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said she’s not had one person voice support for the bill to her. She said she was glad about the tweaks in the bill. Overall, though, to her, she asserted it looks far too much like the segregation of her youth because private schools will be picking and choosing what students to accept even as they get public money.

“We need to look at education for all and this is not what this looks like,” she said.

Democratic Reps. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville and Lisa Dunkley of Sunrise joined with the committee’s Republican majority in voting for the bill.

Broward County’s Democratic Rep. Dan Daley said he disagrees with Daniels’ assertion that HB 1 won’t take money away from public schools’ ability to operate. The way the bill is written now, the scholarship money comes out of the state funding that goes to districts, he said.

“I hope that if the Legislature goes down this road, they will be open to finding a separate line item in the budget to do so,” Daley said.

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected].


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