SB7070, Creating New Private School Voucher Program, Heads To Gov. DeSantis' Desk

Apr 30, 2019

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, presents an educational voucher bill during session Monday April 29, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Credit Steve Cannon / AP Photo

With the passage of this Legislative session’s marquee school choice bill, a new private school voucher program is on the verge of being created. Senate Bill 7070 is now on the desk of Governor Ron DeSantis, who’s been a vocal supporter of school choice since before taking office. (Photo: Steve Cannon/AP)

And, the former governor of Florida who can be credited with getting the proverbial ball rolling on school choice in the state was there for the final House vote.

“Members, it was 20 years ago when one visionary leader started Florida and Florida’s children on a path of choice,” House Speaker Jose Oliva said moments before the chamber voted. “It was 20 years ago and here we stand today. It is my pleasure to introduce the former governor of the great state of Florida, Governor Jeb Bush.”

When Jeb Bush proposed a private school voucher program just prior to the turn of the century, it was eventually struck down by the Florida Supreme Court. Now, the Family Empowerment Scholarship will pay for middle and low-income families’ private tuition. Families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or a family of four making about $77,000 per year, are eligible. Though, students at 180 percent of poverty and below are given priority under the measure.

The age-old debate concerning whether voucher programs drain money from traditional public schools played out on the House floor. Republican Representative Ralph Massulo tried to make the case for vouchers not being a drain on public schools.

“You heard questions yesterday that showed that the money that the schools are not getting for education of those children, is money that those schools don’t need to spend, because those children are being educated elsewhere,” Massulo said.

Massulo says if every state scholarship program was at full participation, it would still make up only a fraction of students in the state.

“We’re talking about .6 percent of the 2.8 million students in our state … And you say, ‘Well, that’s supposed to grow’ – it’s supposed to grow at .25 percent per year,” Massulo said. “Very small numbers.”

But Democratic Representative Anna Eskamani says Massulo’s argument is a false one.

“Yes, you can make the point that when you divert public dollars into a private enterprise – whether it’s a public-private partnership, an RFP, or in this case directly giving the option for a parent to choose that private institution – you can say you’re saving money because you’re pulling a student out of that school that doesn’t have to be invested anymore,” Eskamani said. “But the reality is, when we make that type of push, we’re also losing quality.”

The new voucher program will be available to 18,000 students, and is projected to come with a price tag of about $130 million. Tampa Democratic Representative Fentrice Driskell says that figure could continue to climb.

“This is a program we heard yesterday that might cost nearly $140 million in the funding for students alone,” Driskell said. “And it could be more than that when you account for agency and administrative costs.”

But Republican Representative Chris Latvala, who chairs the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, says the legislature’s final budget makes up for the expense.

“It’s my honor to say that our budget, that we’ll be passing in the Florida legislature, sets aside $363 million to give directly to districts to do with what they wish, including giving our very capable teachers a raise,” Latvala said. “And I hope that the districts use that money for that purpose. It also, in our budget that we’ll be passing, includes a $250 raise to the FEFP.”

Democratic Representative Geraldine Thompson says her home district in Orange county and others are being asked to let eligible students know about the voucher program.

“Our school districts are being asked to inform students who qualify for free and reduced lunch of the availability of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program,” Thompson said.

Thompson says she pressed the House bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative Jennifer Sullivan, about why that’s being asked of districts.

“I asked Rep. Sullivan if mandating that the school districts provide this information to these families was a recruitment or a marketing tool – and I was assured that it was not,’ Thompson said.

The measure goes a step further in expanding school choice programs by eliminating the waitlist for the existing Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Sullivan touted that aspect of the bill in closing, before her chamber passed it with a 76-39 vote.

“For the FTC waitlist, we make sure that we’re helping those students who have been patiently waiting,” Sullivan said.

Only six Democratic representatives voted with the majority party on the bill.

The measure would also allow for extra funding to go toward ‘community schools,’ those operating in federally-designated “opportunity zones.” Based on socioeconomic data, these are areas in which most or all students qualify for free and reduced lunch.