By John Haughey
The five tuition voucher programs in Florida pay for 160,000 K-12 students to attend more than 1,800 private schools. However, if the nation’s largest school-choice program is going to meet growing demand, it must streamline to expand, Republican lawmakers said.
That’s the impetus behind a bill filed Friday that would merge the five programs into two scholarship programs while creating flexible spending accounts, or education savings accounts (ESAs), for families participating in the school-choice programs.
Senate Bill 48, filed by Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah Gardens, would transfer students who now participate in the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) and Hope scholarship programs into the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) program.
Under SB 48, the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities and the Gardiner Scholarship Program also would be rolled into a new program for students with unique abilities called the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship Program.
“Parents are the best advocates for their children, and now more than ever before parents are seeking freedom from a one-size-fits-all system,” Diaz said. “Parents of all children, regardless of income, should be empowered to choose the educational environment that is best for their child.”
SB 48 proposes state funding for the scholarships, now 95% of per-pupil costs in public schools, would increase to 97.5%, with eligibility standards remaining the same.
The FTC, with 100,512 students enrolled in 1,807 private schools last year, and the FES, with about 28,000 voucher recipients in more than 70 schools, constitute the vast majority of Florida students participating in the school-choice programs.
The FTC, created in 2001, is funded by corporate donations in exchange for a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit. Under SB 48, donors can still contribute and receive tax credits.
The FES was created by lawmakers at the behest of Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019 as the first school-voucher program funded by taxpayer money. Lawmakers agreed last year to grow the FES, originally capped at 18,000 students, by about 10,000 students next year.
Students are FES-eligible if household income doesn’t exceed 260% of the federal poverty level. If more than 5% of scholarships are available once the school year begins, students whose families earn up to 325% of the federal poverty level – more than $80,000 for a family of four – would be eligible.
Under SB 48, which does not have a House companion, families can spend voucher allocations through ESAs, which could cover expenditures including electronic devices, curriculum, part-time tutoring programs, educational supplies, equipment, and therapies that insurance programs do not cover.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said the streamlining is necessary because the state’s “patchwork system is largely the result of years of legal challenges from school-choice opponents.”
“We support the Senate’s efforts to streamline these programs and give families the flexibility they need to meet each child’s safety and academic needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, the state’s largest administrator of K-12 voucher programs.
“Let’s keep expanding access to learning options – Florida families want and deserve it,” tweeted former Gov. Jeb Bush, who spearheaded the 1999 effort to create Florida’s school-choice program.
The Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest teachers union, and Senate Democrats were among the first to criticize the measure.
“How can they steal public tax dollars and give it away to private unaccountable programs?” FEA President Andrew Spar asked. “It looks like it’s positioning for a massive expansion of unaccountable vouchers.”
“This is a huge, huge problem that they’re about to do this in a COVID year, with all the budget constraints,” Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, said during a Democratic caucus meeting. “We’re going to have to fight like hell on this one.”
Originally published by The Center Square. Republished with permission.