Governor Ron DeSantis has signed off two major pieces of education legislation this week. They include giving more teachers the option of carrying guns, and creating a new voucher program.
Florida’s newest voucher program is tapping into the state’s primary public school funding mechanism to support private school tuition. Families with incomes of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible. A family of four making up to $77,000 a year can qualify. The program was a priority of Governor Ron DeSantis and he pushed it as a way to end a waiting list for the state’s corpriate tax scholarship program.
“We had to put him in our neighborhood school and he had to re-adjust to a different environment," says Renae Mitchell, a Jacksonville grandmother whose seven-year-old grandson had to leave his private school when money ran out. " Everyday we take him to school he asks could we please put him back in private school. He’s not used to the violence. But that’s what happens in the neighborhood school.”
Mitchell joined DeSantis and other state officials at a press event at a Jacksonville private school Thursday. The program is expected to serve up to 18,000students in its first year. Only six Democrats joined with Republicans in voting for it. Among those opposed is North Florida Senator Bill Montford who heads the Florida Association of District Superintendents.
“We are allowing them to take public funds and go to schools where the standards are not as high, or perhaps they don’t even have standards and worse than that—we don’t even know what those standards are."
The new voucher is similar to what former Governor Jeb Bush envisioned when he created the state’s first voucher programs nearly 20-years ago. That original program was deemed unconstitutional by the state supreme court because it used public tax dollars as its funding source. The legislature revamped it in the wake of that ruling into today’s Corporate Tax Scholarship program, where businesses can donate in exchange for tax breaks.
DeSantis has also approved an expansion of the state’s Guardian Program. It was created in the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and it allows teachers with other responsibilities to carry guns.
Lawmakers have expanded that to include classroom-only teachers. The program is voluntary for districts but critics worry about unintended consequences.
“I look at what happened in Parkland, and you see this guy walking up and the adults cowered—if that person would have faced resistance, this stuff may not have happened," DeSantis said. He notes the program was part of recommendations from the commission set up to evaluate the response to the shooting. "We’re not forcing anyone to do anything. We’re putting it as an option.”
The program is voluntary for districts and teachers would have to go additional background checks and firearms training. The measure expanding the Guardian Program also provides more mental health funding for schools, and requires greater recording and reporting about student behavioral issues and crimes committed on campuses.