School choice expansion advances in Senate, House

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Expanding eligibility for private school vouchers is considered a chief priority for GOP legislators this year.

A bill creating universal school choice — giving vouchers to all students regardless of income — advanced in both the House and the Senate amid questions about how much it’s going to cost.

The bill (SB 202) passed along party lines in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Education. Its House version (HB 1) received nods at its third committee stop with the House Education and Employment Committee. In that vote, two Democrats, Reps. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville and Gallop Franklin II of Tallahassee joined with the Republican majority.

But it’s going to be getting an overhaul before it heads to the full House, according to committee action.

Republican Sen. Corey Simon of Tallahassee is sponsoring the Senate version. Rep. Kaylee Tuck of Lake Placid is carrying the House version and House Speaker Paul Renner has tagged it as a chief priority for Republican supermajority.

It would make all students, regardless of income, eligible for a school voucher worth an average of $8,000. It would also open the funding to children being homeschooled.

Critics fear, however, that a host of families that have never used public schools will be getting a benefit they don’t need. Gov. Ron DeSantis indicated he might not be in favor of making vouchers universally available to the children of top earners.

“If you have a family that’s very high income, they have school choice, they don’t necessarily need to be eligible for the program,” DeSantis said during a news conference after his State of State Tuesday. “I think there’s a philosophical interest among some that money falls to the students. I get that, and philosophically I’m not even opposed to that. But you know, you just have to make choices.”

The House version, however, added a bipartisan amendment that would prioritize families of specific income groups first, Democratic Rep. Patricia Williams’ amendment made it so that, under the bill, families earning 185% of the federal poverty level or less would be prioritized first. And a third tier would mean families earning 400% of the federal poverty line or more would be last in line to get the benefit.

But the universality of the benefit remains in the bill.

“I am one of the millionaires who is going to get a scholarship under this thing,” said Republican Rep. Randy Fine of Brevard County, adding that he’s not sure he would accept it.

A number of states are entertaining the same legislation. Arizona expanded school choice to all beginning this school year, and reports are that the demand for the money outstripped what was budgeted many times over.

The costs emerged as a key sticking point for Democrats at both committee stops Wednesday.

“It’s difficult for me to make a decision to vote for a bill when I don’t have the data,” said Democratic Sen. Geraldine Thompson, who represents Central Florida. “You’re saying that this is in the process of being compiled but it’s being put to a vote today.”

Simon said the decision can’t wait: “Our students can’t stand by and wait for us to figure it out when we have an opportunity for them now.”

The House version offers an estimate that expanding school choice to all families regardless of income will mean $210 million in new costs. The Senate version still doesn’t have a specific price tag. But the Senate bill’s analysis says the bill will have a “significant negative impact on state expenditures.” How negative, though, is undetermined.

“We’re still waiting on the numbers from EDR (Office of Economic & Demographic Research),” Simon said. “We’re still waiting to pull all those questions together and make sure that we’re giving an accurate count of the total cost of this bill going forward.”

The House version does not yet come with an estimate of costs from the EDR either.

A think tank, Florida Policy Institute (FPI), estimates the costs will be $4 billion. FPI estimates 75% of those currently paying tuition without tax support will apply for the benefit, whereas the House analysis is that half of those will apply.

Unlike its House companion, Simon’s 74-page bill addresses a host of issues, such as school construction costs, making buses optional for student transportation and loosening public school teacher certification requirements.

The House companion bill would add some of those elements, according to an amendment Democrat Susan Valdés of Tampa introduced and then withdrew, in anticipation of a bill rewrite on Friday. Those elements will make it easier for public schools to compete with their private school counterparts, she said.

Still, critics fear expanding school choice will empty out public schools, leaving only those who can’t afford to make up the difference between private school tuition and the $8,000 voucher the state offers, along with those who can’t get transportation.

“How will the lack of funding affect public schools?” Thompson asked.

It won’t because the money follows the student, Simon contended.

“The allocation doesn’t change, you are getting dollars for those students enrolled in your schools,” Simon answered.

But that did not satisfy Thompson.

“Just because you move the student, it doesn’t impact the fixed costs,” Thompson said.

“What we’re trying to do with this bill is we’re trying to lift up what’s going on in our schools,” Simon said, arguing that competition for students will encourage schools’ performance.

Unlike at the last committee stop, a Republican had a question.

“Are we funding homeschooled students at the same level as those students who go to a brick-and-mortar school?” Sen. Colleen Burton of Lakeland asked.

Simon replied in the affirmative.

Some giving testimony urged Senators to go further in what the expansion would cover.

“As a pastor with families asking me if we can start a Christian school soon, we are planning on doing that,” said Keith Carringer, pastor of Highlands Baptist Church in Lake Placid. “My worry is that with the lack of protection for religious exemption (in this bill) that we could be required to teach curriculum against our Bible-based conviction.

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].


  • Bob Martin

    March 8, 2023 at 3:12 pm

    Why exactly should atheists and agnostics pay taxes to support religious education materials and programs? Spending millions or billions of dollars to destroy public schools may turn out to be the biggest mistake ever made in Florida, as it would not be sustainable without tax increases to pay for these vouchers.

    • Paul Passarelli

      March 8, 2023 at 4:20 pm

      Oh Bob, you are just so wrong. Why should christians (or any other denomination) “… pay taxes to support for secular education materials and programs?” Do you see what I did there?

      Spending millions of dollars (not billions) to destroy the public schools will turn out the be the least expensive and most valuable bargain that any state government has brought about in something like 247 years!

      If you’re interested I’m certain that an *HONEST* accounting will reveal massive tax breaks would come of eliminating Public (aka Government) Schools with all their bureaucratic bloat and institutionalized failures, and juggernaut-like inertia without regard to costs.

  • Ricardo

    March 8, 2023 at 3:36 pm

    Terrible idea, also “school choice” has always been White Supremacists trick to say they don’t want their children going to school with black children. It happened when private school came around a couple decades ago. This is a huge red flag, and Ron Desantis is a Fascist.

  • Paul Passarelli

    March 8, 2023 at 4:12 pm

    Means testing is never a good idea, but it’s really bad when the services being considered contain a ‘mandatory’ component.

    At a glance, I would oppose means testing for parents, but might consider means testing for the schools that receive the vouchers, based on their average tuition per student. That might be effective in persuading those super expensive schools into providing a number of scholarships to families of limited means to reduce their average tuition.

    But of course that would be *voluntary* on their part. As it is the wealthy currently pay the lion’s share of the taxes, so penalizing them by denying them the same school vouchers that the population they support gets for free is *grossly unfair* to borrow phraseology from the Left.

    The question of need is moot. If a public education is a ‘right’, which the poor are very vocal that it is, then the wealthy do not need to demonstrate a need to exercise their right to a voucher!

    Or is hypocrisy more important than justice?

  • Chris

    March 9, 2023 at 9:22 pm

    Looks like we have to pass the bill to know what’s in the the bill. Let’s see, where have we heard that before? Oh yeah…

  • Sierra Bush Rester

    March 15, 2023 at 3:25 pm

    Who Actually Gets to Choose in Floridas School Choice?

    There are three primary types of voucher programs in the state of Florida. The first voucher is the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) program, which was established in 2001 to expand educational opportunities for low-income families. This voucher is administered by Step Up for Students and is paid for through individuals/corporations receiving a tax credit for donations made. The problem with this voucher is that the amount of the voucher rarely covers the cost of tuition at a quality accredited private school. This means that the vouchers often go unused because their target demographic(low-income families) cannot afford to attend private schools even with the voucher and instead opt the stay in public school. In fact, at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, there were $255 million of unused FTC funds.

    The second type of voucher is part of the Family Empowerment Scholarship that focuses on special needs students. The FES-Unique Abilities(UA)  voucher essentially merged the Gardiner and McKay Scholarship and now gives vouchers worth nearly 10k per student to children with disabilities. The problem with the FES-UA voucher is that it is limited in funding. In 2021-2022, only 25,000 students received a voucher leaving nearly 10,000 the waitlist and while the proposed HB1/SB202 legislation does increase the growth of these vouchers to 3% (or 5,000 students)  that is a meager number (for such a high-demand voucher) when compared to the population of nearly 425,000 disabled students in Florida.

     Other than it being a limited resource the other problem with the FES-UA voucher is that because private schools are not required to follow the law that protects disabled children and their right to accommodations, (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)  families are left with only two choices: 1. Stay in public school (where they are legally obligated to accommodate disabled children) or 2. Find a private specialty school willing to follow IDEA law; the problem with specialty schools is that most of them cost upwards of $20,000 a year, making them unaffordable (even with a 10k voucher) to most special needs families 

    The final type of voucher (also part of the Family Empowerment  scholarship) is the Educational Opportunity (FES-EO) voucher. As with the FTC voucher, the FES-EO voucher is currently only available to low-income families and for the same reasons as the FTC program, the demand for the FES-EO program has been low because its target demographic (even with the voucher) cannot afford tuition at quality accredited private schools; (in 2021-2021 there were nearly 22,000 vouchers left unclaimed.) 

     When we see it all laid out like this, it begs the question, “Who actually gets to choose Florida school choice?” If HB1/SB 202 plans to keep the voucher cap on the high-demand FES-UA vouchers (for students with disabilities ) but removes the voucher cap and the income requirements for low-demand FTC and FES-EO vouchers then who is benefiting from this policy change? Because It’s not the special needs children, (85% of whom will remain in public schools to receive the proper accommodations,) and it’s not the low-income and middle-class families; (for whom quality accredited private schools remain too expensive.) This leaves us with an unsettling answer: School Choice is not and has never been about giving choice to all Florida families; rather, it is about rewarding those privileged enough to have already made the choice not to use public schools. 

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