By John Haughey
(The Center Square) – A massive revision and expansion of Florida’s school choice programs has been idling in the Senate since it secured its third chamber committee endorsement on March 4.
The 158-page Senate Bill 48, sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, would merge five voucher plans that pay for nearly 190,000 K-12 students to attend more than 1,800 private schools into two state trust funds while creating education savings accounts (ESAs) averaging $7,400 per student for participating families.
SB 48 advanced in relatively narrow partisan votes and was introduced for a first reading on the Senate floor March 10 but has not appeared on the docket since as supporters awaited a House proposal to emerge.
That happened Wednesday when Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, introduced House Bill 7045 to the House Education & Employment Committee, which approved the measure in a 21-3 vote.
Four of the panel’s seven Democrats – Susan Valdes of Tampa, Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes, James Bush III of Miami and Kristen Arrington of Kissimmee – voted to advance HB 7045, which has one committee hearing to go before reaching the House floor and beginning conference discussions to meld the two bills into one adoptable measure.
Fine’s 61-page HB 7045 includes many of SB 48’s provisions that expand Florida’s school choice plans – already, the nation’s largest voucher system – including establishing ESAs for private schooling and other education-related costs.
But the House measure also features significant differences from the Senate proposal. Unlike SB 48, HB 7045 would not create a trust fund but keep the state’s tax-credit and Hope scholarships separate from the budget system and coordinated by state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organizations such as Step Up For Children.
“I think it is a philosophical difference. But again, the big picture is, let’s get something done that makes the world better for parents and for students,” Fine told the House Education & Employment Committee, noting there’s time to resolve differences with the Senate bill as the 60-day session nears its mid-point.
“I think both sides want the same thing: more choices for more parents. How we get there is being looked at a bit differently,” Fine said.
Florida offers five school choice voucher programs: the John McKay Scholarship; Gardiner Scholarship Program; Hope Scholarship Program; Family Empowerment Scholarship Program (FES); and Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC).
According to HB 7045’s legislative analysis, during the 2019-20 school year, $221.5 million in McKay scholarships funding was awarded to 30,185 students to attend 1,547 private schools. As of October 2020, 17,508 students were awarded Gardiner scholarships averaging $10,464 per student. Hope scholarships were awarded to 390 scholarships for students to attend a private school and 476 to students to attend another public school.
The FES, created in 2019, awarded 36,384 vouchers to students averaging $6,972.53 each to attend private schools while the FTC, the largest of the voucher programs, provided $670 million in vouchers to 111,219 students enrolled in 1,870 private schools.
SB 48 would merge the five voucher plans into two programs and proposes state funding for vouchers, now at 95 percent of public school per-pupil allocations, be increased to 97.5 percent, while creating ESAs families can use for electronic devices, curriculum, part-time tutoring programs, educational supplies, equipment and therapies insurance doesn’t cover.
SB 48 would transfer students now participating in the FTC and Hope programs into the FES as one program and those enrolled in the McKay and Gardiner programs into another.
HB 7045 would keep the programs separate without the trust fund mix of state allocations and tax-credit contributions and, Fine said, “dramatically” increase the amount of money per voucher and the number of children eligible to receive one.
“This is not to move money from the left pocket to the right pocket,” he said. “It’s actually putting more money in the pocket.”
Originally published by The Center Square. Republished with permission.