House lawmakers ready school choice bill for a full vote

Supporters say this will make it so money follows the students, instead of funding systems.

Allowing all families to get an $8,000-per-student school voucher to attend private school, regardless of income, is one step closer to reality.

The House readied legislation (HB 1) for a full vote, which could come as soon as Friday. It could represent a sea-change in the design of education that the state’s students are offered.

“Under this initiative we will never have to tell a parent no,” said Rep. Kaylee Tuck, who carried the bill.

Democrats proposed a number of amendments, all which failed, including one amendment from Rep. Katherine Waldron of Palm Beach County would limit funding to those whose income was more than 500% of the federal poverty level.

Currently, a family of four can make up to $111,000, or 375% of the federal poverty level, to be eligible for the state’s voucher. The state has been able to meet the demand for those scholarships entirely. For students with disabilities, there is a wait list for those scholarships, however. The bill would wipe out that wait list.

The bill would also open the funding to children being homeschooled and students currently in private school whose tuition has never been publicly funded.

Critics fear that the public system could become even more underfunded. How much it will cost has been a matter of much debate.

Democratic Rep. Yvonne Hinson of Gainesville said better numbers are in order.

“We need surefire numbers just like our School Boards,” she said.

The House bill says the expansion will mean $210 million in new costs, whereas the Senate bill (SB 202), which passed out of its final committee Thursday, shows the expansion will cost $646.5 million.

That drew the attention of Rep. Robin Bartleman’s line of questioning: “How could there be a $400 million discrepancy between the two chambers analyzing the same bill?” she asked.

Tuck said she hadn’t had a chance to dive into the Senate analysis, but she said she believed it had to do with how the Senate version didn’t discount the money that would come from tax scholarship program when it was calculating new costs, as the House version of the bill did.

Democrats also cited a school choice expansion bill which passed in Arizona. There, implementing universal school choice blew a hole in state expenditures. Arizona, apparently, didn’t anticipate that 75% of previously unfunded students applied for and received the voucher money.

The House analysis anticipates that 50% of students that hadn’t been previously funded would access funds under the legislation. Tuck said that she doesn’t believe Florida’s rules will invite the deluge of demand that Arizona experienced.

“We have the safeguards in place,” Tuck said.

Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando found it hard to believe.

“I feel like an $8,000 coupon is pretty good, no matter what your income level.”

The House version, which won a handful of Democrats’ votes as it came through committee hearings, added a bipartisan amendment that would prioritize families of specific income groups first.

The bill, also through a bipartisan amendment, loosened public school requirements regarding student transportation and teacher certification, which supporters say will help public schools compete.

Private schools’ accountability and transparency emerged as a concern in the House debate.

Eskamani asked: “What are some of the academic guardrails, if they exist?”

Tuck replied: “We are not going to be regulating content that the private schools are able to teach.”

She added later, “The parents providing the accountability is the strongest accountability we can ask for.”

Bartleman raised the question of whether homeschool families should be eligible for the full $8,000-per-student version. That’s the amount that the state formula pays for students going to brick-and-mortar buildings.

“It’s the same amount that the schools get and they have overhead, teacher salaries, insurance, and all of those things,” Bartleman said. “Is that the accurate amount to homeschool a child when you’re doing it in your home and you’re the parent and you’re not paying yourself?”

Tuck replied: “The intent of this bill is to make sure that the funds that the student would generate … in a district school would follow that student in full. However, we’re open to have the conversation.”

Bartleman proposed an amendment that would require participating private schools to provide a report to prospective parents. That report would show them what programs are offered compared to the public schools, and what the average student performance is on a norm-referenced test.

“This is a protection for the parents,” Bartleman said, during an exchange that included testimony from Rep. Angie Nixon about how her son’s school outside of the public system ended up failing him, despite her best efforts.

Tuck said comparative information is available through an annual study. The amendment failed.

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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