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The Florida House passes a bill to expand school voucher eligibility

A general view of the Old Capitol and current Florida Capitol buildings Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023 in Tallahassee, Fla.
Phil Sears/AP
FR170567 AP
A general view of the Old Capitol and current Florida Capitol buildings Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023 in Tallahassee, Fla.

The Florida House on Friday passed a bill that would make nearly every K-12 student in the state eligible for a state-funded school voucher, despite not having a clear estimate for how much it would cost.

“We are using our taxpayers for a product that kids could have negative learning gains every year," said state Rep. Robin Bartleman (D-Weston) during a virtual press conference on Friday morning. "We’re going to continue to funnel our tax dollars into that school, when our paramount responsibility is to provide a uniform system of education.”

HB1 passed (83-27) in the Republican-supermajority House mostly along party lines. It would give nearly every K-12 student in the state the option of getting a school voucher to help pay for private school tuition, home school or other educational expenses — regardless of income.

Cost estimates in the House and Senate are more than $400 million dollars apart, while the Florida Policy Institute has estimated the expansion could cost billions of dollars in its first year.

Before lawmakers passed the bill, House Democrats invited a Democratic state Senator and a public schools advocate from Arizona to talk about problems they’re seeing after a school voucher expansion took effect there.

Arizona Senate Democratic Leader Mitzi Epstein says what proponents describe as “universal choice” is a “budget buster.”

“Our leadership last year and our majority side decided to expand vouchers without funding it," Epstein said. Now, the state has a $200-300 million hole in its budget, she said. "This is a hole that is not needed.”

Democrats argue that the measure is financially irresponsible because it would transfer funding from public schools to private ones without holding those schools to the same standards.

Republicans say the measure will ensure every child has the opportunity to attend the school of their choice, even though some private school tuition costs much more than the amount the vouchers would cover.

“We heard a lot today about the dangers and economic concerns about opening up eligibility to everyone, but I posit you this we should be empowering every single family and every single child,” said state Rep. Kaylee Tuck (R-Sebring) who sponsored the measure.

House Speaker Paul Renner praised lawmakers for passing HB1 and another measure that would shorten the time people have to file a personal injury lawsuit, describing both bills as "transformational."

Another bill that passed is a proposal to shorten school board term limits from 12 years to eight years. That one would go before voters in 2024 if it passes the Senate.

“This bill does not preclude anyone from running again," said Rep. Alex Rizo (R-Hialeah) the bill's sponsor. The measure also would allow anyone elected before 2022 to serve an additional eight consecutive years.

Democrats also oppose shortening term limits for school board members. Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) also spoke out against another measure moving in the House that would make school board races partisan.

“I can’t ignore the fact that these two feel connected, that there is this conscious effort out of this legislature to make school board races partisan as quickly as possible and then to roll off the current members as quickly as possible, so what are no-party-affiliated positions today become partisan decisions tomorrow," Eskamani said. "I don’t support either one of those.”

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.