The oncoming reality that all students will be offered school vouchers regardless of income has the state’s largest teacher’s union pushing back, saying universal vouchers will “make a bad situation worse.”
Legislation (HB 1) approved Friday that would transform the state’s education system, potentially transferring hundreds of millions — and some say billions — to private schools, is rocketing toward reality. The Senate’s version (SB 202) is expected to win approval this week and head to the Governor’s desk.
Controversy has erupted over how much the plan is going to cost, but the Florida Education Association (FEA) says the vast majority of Florida’s children who attend public school can’t afford more resources drained away from the public system.
“This bill is going to make life tougher for a lot of kids,” said Andrew Spar, FEA President. “It will mean fewer resources in their schools, and fewer teachers and staff to meet their day-to-day needs.”
The teacher’s union says that Florida is already 44th in the country for per-pupil spending. Statistics also put the average state’s teachers’ pay at 48th in the nation, according to the National Education Association’s latest state-by-state ranking released in April.
The cost has been controversial because it adds new categories for those eligible to receive the average $8,000-per-student voucher. It’s hard to predict how many families will choose to apply for the new benefit, but the new categories eligible to receive it, beyond the current recipients, are:
— Students now in public schools whose families are making more than 400% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), which is more than $111,000 a year for a family of four.
— Students who have never attended public school whose parents are making more than 400% FPL.
— Homeschoolers who are willing to submit to some level of testing and curriculum monitoring.
— Special education students now on the state’s waiting list for special education vouchers, which can pay up to tens of thousands, depending on the child’s disability.
The House version anticipates that 50% of students who have never attended public schools will apply to get the public funding. Analysis of the House bill puts the new cost at $210 million. The Senate analysis puts the new cost of the same expansion at $646.5 million.
The Florida Policy Institute, analyzing the experience of the only other state to implement this benefit — Arizona — says there are billions in new costs.
Whether the Governor will sign the legislation is yet another question. The new benefit went far beyond what Arizona anticipated.
After his State of State Address earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis said while he understands the thinking behind universalizing the school voucher to all, there’s only so much money.
“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.
The FEA’s news release calls the legislation tantamount to “writing checks to millionaires with kids in exclusive private schools, while the public schools educating the children of everyday Floridians struggle.”
Both the Senate and the House versions of the bill have items supporters say will put public schools on a more even playing field with their private counterparts as they compete for students. The provisions would make it easier for teachers to qualify and loosen requirements for student transportation. But the FEA dismissed those as window dressing.
“We aren’t fooled by false promises for future deregulation of public schools because we see all the additional burdens that are being placed on teachers, staff and students during this legislative session,” the release says.