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The Florida House proposes a major expansion of vouchers

School choice.
Lindsay Johnson
/
NPR

TALLAHASSEE — Calling it a move toward “universal choice,” House Speaker Paul Renner on Thursday announced a proposal that would make every student in Florida eligible for school vouchers — a move that Democrats blasted as a Republican attack on public education.

The legislation (HB 1) would essentially set up what are known as education savings accounts, providing state-funded vouchers that families would be allowed to use for private-school tuition and numerous other services and expenses.

For instance, the bill would permit families to use the money on things such as tutoring expenses, instructional materials, fees for various exams and “contracted services” provided by public schools.

“In terms of the ESA (education savings accounts), we’ve limited it in some fashion to things that are clearly in the educational lane. So, some states have opened that up to purchasing uniforms and doing other things that don’t have an educational purpose. So, the bill limits it to things that, we would all agree on, have an educational purpose,” Renner, R-Palm Coast, said during a news conference to announce the legislation.

House Choice & Innovation Chairwoman Kaylee Tuck, a Lake Placid Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said the measure would allow parents to create a “customized and tailored education system that fits best for their students.”

But House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, criticized the measure, calling it a “continuation of Republican attacks on our public education system that helped create the American Dream by providing education to the poor and rich alike,”

“This sets our state backwards. This is school choice for schools and not for Florida families. This will also probably leave a price tag for the difference that the parents must pay, when the voucher doesn’t cover the full cost of tuition,” Driskell told reporters.

Vouchers have been one of the most-controversial issues in Florida’s education system since Jeb Bush, a major school-choice supporter, was elected in 1998. Republican lawmakers and governors have approved a series of programs that have gradually expanded vouchers.

But the new proposal would mark a vast expansion of eligibility.

Under the measure, families could receive vouchers if “the student is a resident of this state and is eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12 in a public school in this state.”

“It does expand (eligibility) to everyone,” Renner said. “And it also adds the extra layer of what’s called an ESA.”

Eligibility requirements in current voucher programs, such as the Family Empowerment Scholarship program and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, are typically based on the income of recipients. Those two voucher programs, which included about 188,000 students during the 2021-22 school year, have an income limit of $111,000 for a family of four.

Home-schooled students also would be eligible to receive vouchers under the bill. The measure would include a cap of 10,000 vouchers for home-schooled students in the first year, with the number growing to 20,000 a year after that.

Renner said the expansion also is aimed at eliminating waiting lists for voucher programs. The Family Empowerment Scholarship program, for instance, has a waiting list of 9,400 students seeking vouchers for special-needs educational options.

“I just don’t think it’s morally acceptable for us to do what we’ve been doing, which is … some are in, some are out,” Renner said of the waiting list. “We’re picking winners and losers there. And these are kids that need early intervention.”

Renner, who became speaker in November, told reporters Thursday the amount of funding needed for the measure hasn’t been determined.

But Rep. Felicia Robinson, D-Miami Gardens, warned that the bill would be a misuse of public funds.

“This is not acceptable. My concern is that the voucher program does not have the accountability that it needs to have,” Robinson said. “The voucher program contributes to the rampant fraud, waste and abuse of public money.”

The Republican-controlled Legislature has contemplated education savings accounts in the past.

A 2021 proposal backed by former Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., who is now the state’s education commissioner, sought to create the accounts, but the proposal died. It drew heavy opposition from the Florida Education Association teachers union and Democrats.

The new House measure appears to be on a fast track, as it is expected to be heard by a House committee as early as next week, according to Renner. Lawmakers are holding committee meetings in the weeks leading up to the legislative session, which is scheduled to begin March 7.

While a Senate version of the bill has not emerged, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, signaled her support Thursday for the legislation. Gov. Ron DeSantis also has supported school choice.

“Here in the free State of Florida, we trust parents to make the best decisions for their children. This historic legislation empowers parents, ensuring they direct the significant funding Florida taxpayers are dedicating to education to the best program for their child,” Passidomo said in a post on Twitter.

Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida