Universal school choice legislation heading to the House floor

Sneaker shoes and arrows pointing in different directions on asphalt ground, choice concept
The fourth committee stop added an amendment that loosens public school regulations.

An amended version of the House’s legislation that will expand school choice to all students is advancing and will now head for the House floor.

Some Democrats on the Education Quality Subcommittee Friday voted with the majority to advance the bill.

The new version of the school choice bill (HB 1) still offers vouchers for all students, regardless of family income, but the new amendment is going to make it so that public schools can compete on a more even playing field, supporters say. It loosens some regulations regarding student transportation and teacher certification, to name a few.

Expanding school choice is considered a key priority of House Speaker Paul Renner and the Republican majority. Gov. Ron DeSantis, however, has indicated he might not be in favor of expanding it as far as current legislation, saying that wealthy parents don’t need it.

How much the expansion will cost has emerged as a sticking point.

School choice is now available to families with low to middle incomes. But the legislation would make it available to all students, including those who have never attended public school and homeschooling parents.

Democrats argue it threatens the role of public schools as a great equalizer, and that it will mean less money flowing to public schools, depending on how many parents opt for a voucher to go to a private school.

Tiger Woods’ kids could qualify for vouchers — does that make sense? It doesn’t,” Palm Beach County Democratic Rep. Joe Casello said.

Miami area Republican Rep. Alex Rizo lauded the bill, however, saying it makes public schools more nimble and will ultimately improve them.

“Choice has allowed for public education to elevate their game,” Rizo said.

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 at that same level, even though children don’t attend a brick-and-mortar school.

The House version offers the estimate that expanding school choice to all families regardless of income will mean $210 million in new costs.

The Senate version (SB 202) 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.

Rep. Randy Fine took on critics’ contention that private schools don’t have the same level of accountability as public schools, which have more rules on the books.

“Private schools are far more accountable than government-run schools because they are accountable to parents,” Fine said. “I do not believe that parents are going to allow their children to go year after year to a bad school.”

The issue is likely to encounter a fierce fight on the House floor, particularly over costs if the money for the vouchers comes from the same pot as the one that funds public schools. That’s what the current legislation proposes.

The Idaho Legislature backed away from the same expansion when the price tag was presented as an unknown. Estimates in Ohio are that the school choice expansion there will cost $1.1 billion. Norín Dollard, a senior policy analyst at the Florida Policy Institute, pointed out that Ohio has two-thirds of the children that Florida does.

In Arizona, where universal choice was implemented beginning this school year, the new benefit blew a hole in state expenditures.

Testimony offered showed passionate opinions on the topic.

“We’ve always been a big proponent of money following the child and we are so proud that this is one step closer to happening in Florida,” said Ryan Kennedy, a member of Florida Citizens Alliance, a Naples-based group championing conservative causes.

Melinda Stanwood, a Tallahassee mother of six children, urged lawmakers to vote the bill down — and she believes in school choice, she said.

“There is virtually no regulation for private schools or for homeschooling,” Stanwood said, identifying herself as a former private school teacher. “Private schools can teach virtually whatever they want. If they wanted to teach that the earth is flat, they could, As a homeschooling parent, I could have my kids play video games all day long if I wanted.”

“We are asking more and more of our teachers and our students in public schools year after year,” she continued. “Please don’t bankrupt our public education system.”

Sharyn Kerwin, a Tallahassee parent who testified in support of the bill, explained her reasoning.

“This legislation will give every child even more opportunities to succeed. I know, because having those educational options made all the difference for my family. When my daughter was diagnosed with a rare disease, a variety of school choice options, from hospital home-bound schooling to virtual education, let us make sure she could continue learning while we took care of her health.”

“Without the flexibility of Florida’s school choice options, that wouldn’t have been possible. Now every Florida family is one step closer to that same opportunity,” Kerwin concluded.

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].

One comment

  • Sierra Bush Rester

    March 10, 2023 at 1:36 pm

    Majority Party leadership (and bill sponsors) claim that HB1/SB202 (Florida’s) “school choice bill” will give Florida families “more choice and control over their child’s education.” However, what no one in party leadership seems to realize, (or want to admit) is that (as it stands,) the choice in “school choice” is actually only a choice for the families who have access to being able to make that choice.

    For one thing, many Florida parents have jobs that require them to be at work often before their children go to school, and after. Unless a family has a parent who stays at home or has a parent whose job has flexible hours (instead of your average 9 to 5) most families simply do not have the time or ability to transport their kids to school. Unfortunately, most private schools do not offer transportation, (meaning the transportation falls on the parents.) How can families (who cannot provide their child transportation to private schools) make this “choice” if they do not have access to the transportation needed to do it?

    What’s more, these vouchers would only pay for some (not all) of the average private school tuition, (and would pay for absolutely nothing when it comes to additional costs such as uniforms, books, and other amenities.) The amount of the voucher does depend on the county, but the average voucher in Florida is around 8,000$. unfortunately, the average elementary private school tuition runs families around 9,998$ and the average high school tuition is 11,175$ or more. While the voucher definitely will cover a good amount of the tuition it is not enough for most Florida families. How can families who cannot afford private schools (without a full-ride tuition voucher) make this choice if they do not have access to the wealth conditions to make that choice and remain financially secure?

    Finally, this bill( in its current form) does nothing to ensure private schools are equitable in their admissions process. So often disabled children have been turned away from private institutions on the sole premise of their disability. Even when private schools do end up accepting disabled children parents risk putting their child’s educational safety and security in jeopardy because private schools are under no legal obligation to follow laws such as IDEA law (that insure schools provide disabled children with the support and accommodations that they need to be successful in the classroom.) How can special-needs families choose to send their children to private schools if they can’t make that choice without fearing their children will not be properly accommodated and therefore will not be successful?

    In a nutshell, we are being sold the illusion of choice not choice itself. In reality School of choice is only a choice for families who have the privilege to make that choice. If we think about it School of choice is kind of like Florida’s reverse Robin Hood where, instead of stealing from the rich to give to the poor the rich and the privileged rob working Floridians of their hard-earned tax dollars to fund vouchers to only those privileged enough to choose. While Republican leadership likes to use the hashtag #yourkidsyourchoice (when marketing this bill) the facts tell us that instead it would be far more accurate for party leadership to tell the truth and start saying “your kids, your taxes, OUR choice.”

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