Senate readies school choice bill for final passage

School choice
The ultimate cost depends on how many families not currently funded by tax money opt in.

The Senate readied a bill for passage that could dramatically overhaul the state’s public education and fund new categories of students currently not receiving public education funds.

Republican Sen. Corey Simon filed the legislation (SB 202), and Wednesday he substituted it for the measure (HB 1) the full House approved last week, largely along party lines. It was placed on the calendar and could be up for a final vote as early as Thursday.

It’s anticipated the bill’s passage will make Florida one of a handful of states that offer vouchers to students to attend private schools, regardless of income. Arizona started offering the program for this school year and a handful of states have approved the idea this year.

Currently, a family of four can make up to $111,000, or 400% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), 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 waitlist for those scholarships, however. The bill would wipe out that waitlist.

It will also add new categories of students who are entitled to a voucher worth an average of $8,000 per student.

The new categories are:

— Children currently enrolled in public school whose parents earn more than 400% of the federal poverty level.

— Children currently attending private school whose families make too much for the current scholarship, called the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

— Homeschooled students who agree to a certain level of state oversight.

How much it will cost has been a key sticking point between critics and supporters. There’s a $7 million gap between what the House and Senate projections say the new costs will be, according to the latest staff analysis.

But critics say they are both vastly lowballing it, compared to the Arizona experience that underestimated the cost by hundreds of millions.

The uncertainty of costs was a key theme for Democrats in the House. Some noted that for once, they agree with Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has said the wealthiest don’t need this benefit.

Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo, representing Miami, expressed some incredulity the Florida Department of Education hasn’t weighed in on the costs.

“I’ve heard all kinds of adjectives (about the bill) — transformative, huge … the lower end of the bill is $642 million on the up end,” he said. “It’s kind of extraordinary that there is no agency analysis for such a big bill?”

Simon said, “I will be reaching out to the Department to see. I just don’t have that analysis, if that analysis exists. But that’s where we are.”

The bill readied for passage prioritizes current voucher students and those whose families are earning less than 186% of the FPL.

Sen. Lori Berman noted how the staff analysis for the Senate estimated that 20% of the current 77,505 students now enrolled in private schools without public funding.

“The reason I’m concerned is that I think it’s an extraordinarily low number,” Berman said. “This is basically free money for them.”

Simon said it’s based on a survey.

Democratic questioning focused on teacher qualifications, transparency and public oversight. Simon resolutely answered that the bill would change the design of education funding so that the money funded students, not systems.

“The transparency happens between the parent and what’s going on at the school,” Simon 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].

One comment

  • Jackson Hill

    March 23, 2023 at 9:46 pm

    Empower taxpayer parents, not unelected bureaucrats and self-serving unions. Public schools serve taxpayers not special interests and need to focus on education, not woke indoctrination.

Comments are closed.


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