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Diaz Calls Voucher Merger Bill, Education Savings Accounts His 'Top Priority'

manny diaz.JPG
Ryan Dailey
/
WFSU News
Miami-Dade Republican Senator Manny Diaz speaks at a press conference in support of the Family Empowerment Scholarship during the 2019 legislative session. Diaz is mulling a future run for Florida Senate president.

Florida has several options for parents seeking alternatives to public school. They can use the Hope scholarship for bullied students, McKay or Gardner scholarships for kids with disabilities, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income families with kids in failing public schools, and the Florida Empowerment Scholarship for middle income families. Senator Manny Diaz’s bill would take five scholarship programs down to two, simplifying choices for parents.

Diaz says now is the time for the merger. The pandemic, he says, has brought parents closer to their kid’s education and raised the profile of education alternatives.

“Everything has changed with COVID. And parents are more intent on being involved and having flexibility with their student’s education. And what this does is it really brings that to fruition and gives them the opportunity to handle that," he said during an interview with WFSU.

A recent Associated Press report notes school choice proposals are moving in many states this year, spurred by concerns raised by parents who’ve confronted the demands of working from home while facing school closures and trying to juggle remote learning for their kids.

The merger part of Diaz’s bill isn’t the most controversial part. It’s how these consolidated programs would be funded that’s drawing Democratic fire. Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, doesn’t agree with parts of the measure that rely on the state’s main public education funding mechanism. Thurston calls it a "death knell" for public schools. specifically for the way it works with the state's primary public education funding tool, called the FEFP.

“That’s what we’re getting ready to do today. History will show that that was the downfall of public education," he said during a recent hearing for the bill.

The bill would convert all existing scholarship programs into education savings accounts. Parents could use the money however they see fit, as long as it’s an education expense—including college expenses. Diaz says the bill doesn’t touch the FEFP. Instead, he plans to draw the money from a separate source that "draws money from a line item right below the FEFP". That line item, Diaz says, will continue to be filled by corporate tax donations.

“It does not touch the money districts get…companies can still donate but we create a new trust fund and that money goes directly into K-12 education, so it all feeds into the same pot.”

The idea is to give money directly to parents and let them spend it on what they feel is most important—as long as it factors into education.

The expansion of education savings accounts has long been sought by choice advocates like Doug Tuthill. He’s the president of the state’s larger voucher organization, Step Up For Students. In a 2019 Interview with WFSU, Tuthill explained the goal.

“Our hope is eventually to turn all our programs into these educational scholarship accounts. The way it works is, money goes into an account for the family… It’s well-regulated…they have the flexibility to spend money not just on school opportunities, but on after-school programs that more affluent families have access to.”

Diaz says that’s his goal, too.