Legislature passes universal school choice bill
Corey Simon takes the school choice banner, and runs with it.

The costs are unknown and even the Governor has expressed reservations about the richest getting public money to go to private school.

“Transformative” changes to the state’s education system will next head toward Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk as the Senate approved making private school vouchers available to all, regardless of income.

The vote on the floor was 26-12. Senate President Kathleen Passidomo called it “one of the most transformative education bills in the history of the state.”

The House legislation (HB 1) was substituted for the Senate version (SB 202) and it adds new categories of students eligible to receive a voucher worth $8,000 per student to go to any private school.

Republican Sen. Corey Simon of Tallahassee recalled growing up as a poor kid in Pompano Beach, unable to get out of a poorly performing school. He lamented that parents have been erased in the debate over the bill.

“Those parents deserve the opportunity to put their kids in the best place they can find,” he said.

Some critics claim, however, that the legislation will trigger untold unintentional consequences. Only those who can make up the difference between the state’s voucher and private school tuition will be helped. Critics also argued schools may increase their tuition, knowing their audience has more to spend, and that the state may be funding schools that don’t represent ideals worth putting tax dollars into.

Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky of Boca Raton cited a news story that detailed how a school administrator, who had shown up to testify in favor of the bill in the last few weeks, was now fired because students were shown Michelangelo’s masterpiece sculpture “David.”

“How we could allow state money to go to a school that doesn’t think that is a classical Western civilization art history lesson is the problem that a lot of us have with the bill,” Polsky said. “When we talk about transparency, we talk about accountability, that’s what we’re talking about.”

Democratic Sen. Lori Berman of Delray Beach said she hadn’t received an adequate answer to her question in committee about whether an Ohio homeschooling pod in Ohio using Nazi curriculum could happen here.

Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami argued GOP members appear to be indifferent to the cost of this expansion.

“It’s conspicuous that something so transformative, something that, at the lower end, is going to be $642 million, there’s no agency analysis,” he said. “I find that to be poor stewardship.

“If you’re going to spend $642 million, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the agency that will be the steward of those dollars to have to opine on their position,” he added.

DeSantis himself has expressed some doubt that the wealthiest families should be given public funding to send their children to a private school of their choosing.

The voucher program had been limited to families making 400% or less than the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), which is about $111,000 a year for a family of four. The state has been able to meet the demand from that group, although there is a waitlist for children with special needs to get funded.

This bill would fund all those waiting students with disabilities and also add:

— 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.

Estimates of what that expansion will cost vary widely. The House PreK-12 budget shows $110 million being reserved if costs go over the budgeted amount, while the Senate has budgeted $350 million for possible cost overruns.

Democrats, who stood solidly against the legislation, detailed the evolution of vouchers in the state’s education system. Sen. Tracie Davis recalled how it started out as something to help poor children in failing schools and then it became something to help students with disabilities. Now it’s something else entirely.

“The expansion proposed here today in this bill is entirely about paying vouchers for more than 300,000 students who are currently enrolled in private school or in homeschool programs,” she said.

Simon, as he closed on his bill, said that the public schools are being funded at historic levels. The No. 1 priority he heard as he campaigned was to open up school choice. And he lambasted the debate against expanding school choice.

“They are not arguing for the kids, they are not for the parents — they’re arguing for the system, so the union can turn around and line their pockets during election time,” Simon said.

The Florida Policy Institute (FPI) urged DeSantis to veto the legislation heading for his desk.

Last week, FPI urged the Florida Senate to include growth caps, income limits, and measures to ensure transparency and accountability in the program. None of these recommendations made it into the bill,” said Sadaf Knight, CEO of FPI.

“Funneling this much in taxpayer dollars to private schools with no parameters to ensure accountability for student success is fiscally irresponsible and puts at risk the families and communities who utilize our state’s public schools and the services they provide.”

But the movement also ignited jubilation about the change that’s coming.

House Speaker Paul Renner gave a shout out to Passidomo, Simon and the entire Senate on Twitter. Passidomo credited him as the architect of the bill.

“Thank you for ensuring every Florida student has the flexibility to unlock their full potential and achieve their dreams,” Renner tweeted.

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].


  • Sierra

    March 23, 2023 at 8:15 pm

    This new legislation will expand the FTC and FESEO voucher programs throughout the state of Florida but what does that actually mean for Florida families; and will all Florida families really be able to choose to use the voucher program? Let’s break it down.

    There are three primary types of voucher programs in the state of Florida: the FTC voucher,and the two family empowerment vouchers (FESUA and FESEO.)

    The Florida Tax Credit (FTC) program, 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 it is only worth approximately 8k and because the average tuition at private schools in Florida is about 12 K it means that the cost of the voucher rarely covers the cost of tuition; making the voucher itself inaccessible to working class and low income families. In fact, at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, (when this voucher was only there available to low income families) there was $255 million of unused FTC funds. Going forward we will likely continue to see the same numbers for the working-class population ( where families opt to stay in public schools because even with this voucher, the private schools remain unaffordable to them) while, on the other hand, we will also see an increase in wealthy families getting the scholarship, because the legislation changed the restrictions on income and made the voucher “universal.”

    The other type of voucher ( which is part of the Family Empowerment scholarship) that was made “ universally accessible” “ regardless of income” is the Educational Opportunity (FES-EO) voucher. As with the FTC voucher, the FES-EO voucher used to only available to low-income families. For the same reasons as the FTC program, the demand for the FES-EO program was low because its old target demographic (even with the voucher) could not afford tuition at quality accredited private schools; (in 2021-2021 there were nearly 22,000 vouchers left unclaimed.) It is again very likely that for the same reasons as the FTC scholarship we will not see much of a change to the population of working-class and low-income families attending private schools, but we will see an increase in wealthy families, already attending private schools receiving the scholarship, regardless of whether they need it or not.

    The final type of voucher (and one that is NOT going to be expanded under this new legislation) is the 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 on the waitlist and while the new 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

    When we see it all laid out like this, it begs the question, “Who will actually get to choose school choice?” If HB1/SB 202 made no changes to the voucher cap on the high-demand FES-UA vouchers (for students with disabilities ) but removed 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 was not and never will be about giving choice to all Florida families; rather, it is about giving a tax write off reward to those privileged enough to have already made the choice to opt out of public education.

  • Rob Desantos

    March 24, 2023 at 12:13 pm

    Oink oink oink! Billion$ in public money going directly into private pockets thanks to the Florida GOP.

Comments are closed.


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