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Florida's path toward universal school choice is 25 years in the making

An empty classroom with desks arranged in a square.
Colleen Cayoup
/
flickr.com

Florida House Speaker Paul Renner has unveiled a plan that would pave the way for nearly all Florida families to send their children to private schools or home school, if they choose. The path for what advocates call “universal school choice” has been laid out during the past 25 years.

Renner’s announcement on a bill to dramatically expand school choice, surprised very few people who’ve been watching the evolution of choice in the state for decades.

“I was one of the biggest opponents of that legislation…because I could envision even then where that would eventually take us, and that’s where we are today," said Tallahassee City Commissioner Richardson. He’s a former state representative and an early critic of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s opportunity scholarship program, the forerunner to today’s school voucher system.

During those early days, the choice movement enjoyed bipartisan support—with many Democrats backing it due to historical racial inequities in traditional public schools. But since then, Florida has introduced charter schools, virtual schools, and greatly expanded private school voucher tuition programs. It’s lifted income caps and eliminated requirements for prior public-school attendance. Within the past two years, lawmakers began allowing state money to be used to fund those scholarships. Renner’s plan goes even further, getting close to a system that Step Up for Students President Doug Tuthill outlined to WFSU in a 2019 interview.

“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," Tuthill said. "They [families] have the flexibility to spend money not just on school opportunities, but on after-school programs that more affluent families have access to.”  
 
Step Up for Students is the state’s largest corporate tax scholarship fundraising organization. Under Renner’s plan every student in the state would become eligible for a school voucher. Rep. Kaylee Tuck (R-Lake Placid) is the House Bill sponsor. She notes the money can be used for private school tuition, or other education-related expenses.

“And as a result, we’ll have students who have the best education possible that fits their unique needs," Tuck said.

The announcement of the proposal is being praised by many school choice advocates who see it as the last frontier in that movement. Historically, most of the students who’ve used the state’s school voucher programs have been Black or Hispanic, and for years, there’s been a waitlist as the program tends to run out of money due to rising demand. This year, Step Up For Students has a waiting list of 9,500 families in need of funding for children with special needs.

In a statement, the self-described conservative Heritage Foundation praised Renner for his plan.

“In 2023, the Sunshine State can further expand education freedom by passing and enacting bills like H.B. 1. This legislation would convert the Family Empowerment Scholarship into an Education Savings Account, or ESA, meaning parents would have even more flexibility in how they can customize their children’s education. It would also expand the eligibility of ESAs to all of Florida’s students so that all families could have a chance to make the best decisions for their children," said the Foundation in a statement.

Richardson, the Tallahassee Commissioner and former state representative, believes the proposal is primed to take Florida backward.

“We’ve gone from my early days of a segregated public school system in Green Cove Springs, Florida to now. And I see many similarities between what was happening back then, to where we are now, and where we’re headed with what’s being proposed in the Florida legislature," he said.

Richardson points to the decimation of two neighboring school systems—Gadsden and Jefferson. When he started working as a school psychologist in Gadsden County in the 1980s, Richardson says there were about 15,000 kids. Today, Gadsden’s school enrollment is less than 5,000. Jefferson has seen a similar decline, to a low of about 700 students before it’s school district was taken over by the state. The state’s capitol county of Leon is 60% white. It’s public school district however, is majority Black and, it’s one of the most segregated school districts in the state according to several studies.

Current House minority Leader Fentrice Driskoll worries the proposal will guide students into low-quality private schools. That’s because private schools, unlike traditional public or charters, aren’t graded by the state, and don’t have to administer state exams. There’s little oversight of them and they can more easily expel students for any reason.

“There’s not enough accountability for these schools and we need to ensure there are benchmarks in place to ensure our students are receiving the quality education that’s promised to them," she said.

There does remain at least one major barrier to universal school choice: transportation.

Even if parents wanted to take advantage of the program, they may not have the ability to get their kids to their chosen school. House Bill 1 does not address the transportation issue but it’s one that continues to be a work in progress.

The House’s plan is moving quickly. Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature and control the governor’s office. Senate President Kathleen Passidomo has already said she supports it. And there may be little opponents can do to defeat it.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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