© 2023 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Bill to expand Florida's school voucher programs gets mixed reaction

Scool Choice Committee Meeting.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Nearly every seat was taken during the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee's hearing on HB1, "School Choice," the measure's first committee stop on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

Debate over a plan that Republicans promise would give nearly every child in Florida access to the school of their choice got underway last week.

“This bill is not just about funding religious schools, it’s also about other choices for families where they don’t feel like they have a safe place to be,” said Shiren Rattigan, owner of Colossal Academy, an inclusive private school in Ft. Lauderdale.

Rattigan was among those watching as HB1 — titled the “School Choice” Bill — passed (13-4) in the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee on Thursday.

While she wasn’t among the more than a dozen people who spoke in favor of it, she waived in support because it would help inclusive schools like hers exist at a time when local districts ban library books and state officials restrict instruction on race and LGBTQ topics, Rattigan explained.

“There are lots of school models that are opening that are safe spaces for children of all kinds of needs, all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of identities, and this also funds that.”

Existing "scholarship" programs would expand under HB1

Right now, the state offers vouchers that can be used to pay for private school tuition through three “scholarship” programs: the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarship; the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES-EO) and the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES-UA) for students with disabilities; and The Hope Scholarship Program (HOPE) .

A voucher wouldn’t necessarily cover the entire cost of tuition. For instance, at Colossal Academy, tuition costs between $13,900 - $14,500 a year, and each student could get a voucher worth up to more than $7,000 annually under the measure. Right now, students get up to about $7,400 a year, according to a legislative staff analysis.

The first two scholarship programs — FTC and FES-EO — would become eligible to every K-12 public school student in the state if HB1 becomes law.

The measure would also expand the scope of how parents may spend those funds, which would go into an “empowerment savings account.” It would allow them to use FES-EO and FTC dollars to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, virtual school, homeschool fees and tuition, certification tests, Advanced Placement exams, supplemental education materials and more.

HB1 is expected to ultimately pass the Republican-controlled legislature and end up on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

Parents whose household income doesn't exceed 185% of the federal poverty level — or $51,338 for a family of four — would continue to get priority to receive an FTC or FES-EO scholarship.

Scott Hottenstein School Choice.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Scott Hottenstein, president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida, speaks out against HB1 during the Florida House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

Still, many private schools cost too much for those families, even with the help of a school voucher.

“The bill provides an illusion of choice to many of our low-income families,” said Scott Hottenstein, president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida, a public education advocacy group with chapters in several counties.

Hottenstein was among seven others who spoke out against the measure. He says it would have to undergo "radical changes" before he'd support it.

For starters, he wants lawmakers to cap tuition increases at private schools that accept vouchers because otherwise it would just lead to state dollars subsidizing for-profit schools to raise tuition costs on families who can already afford the current rates. “That school just took seven thousand dollars of public money and made even more of a profit.”

Hottenstein says he'd also like to see limits on eligible household income. The measure would make it so that any public school child, regardless of income status, could receive a state-funded voucher.

Transportation remains an issue

Another issue that's come up is the cost of transportation for families sending their children to private school.

Right now, students may use up to $750 in FES-EO voucher funds for transportation to public school if it’s outside the district or wasn’t assigned to the student. However, those dollars aren’t allowed to cover transportation costs to private schools.

Tallahassee resident Alkesha Williamson, 32, sends her three school-aged children to Capitol Prep — a local Christian private school for K-12 students — with the help of state voucher dollars. She spoke in support of the measure, though she’d like to see lawmakers make voucher funds available for transportation and other expenses.

“I’m a working mom, so I have to drive my kids to school,” she said. “Any type of extra funding would help supply the uniforms, most private schools have uniforms. That would take a big weight off of me, as a mom.”

Democrats try to cap tuition increases, eligible household income to receive vouchers

Democrats tried on Thursday to cap participating private school tuition increases at 1.5%; include state anti-discrimination protections for immigrant, minority and LGBTQ students attending a private school that excepts vouchers; and limit eligible household income to $1 million dollars.

“I just don’t think we should be subsidizing millionaires to take funding from public schools,” Rep. Angie Nixon (D-Jacksonville) explained to fellow committee members before her amendment to restrict eligible household income failed.

Rep. Kaylee Tuck (R-Lake Placid) who's sponsoring the measure explained why she couldn't support amendment: “The point of the bill is to expand options to all students regardless of income status."

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.