Florida House passes a major expansion of school vouchers

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Reading sign at Sheehy Elementary School. By Pamela Robinson/WMNF News (2022).

By Ryan Dailey ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The Republican-controlled House on Friday passed a measure that would make every Florida student eligible for taxpayer-backed school vouchers, as Democrats and other critics slammed the expansion as a “coupon for millionaires.

House members voted 83-27 along almost-straight party lines to pass the bill. The Senate could consider a similar bill (SB 202) as early as next week.

The proposals have sailed through the Legislature, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has pledged that he would sign a vouchers expansion.

Opposition to the House bill centered, in part, on eliminating income-eligibility requirements that are part of current voucher programs. Families would be eligible to receive vouchers under the bill if “the student is a resident of this state and is eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12 in a public school in this state.”

Rep. Marie Woodson, D-Hollywood, echoed many other opponents Friday when she criticized the possibility that wealthy families would receive vouchers.

“This bill is an $8,000 gift card to the millionaires and billionaires who are being gifted with a state-sponsored coupon for something they can already afford,” Woodson said.

The Florida Education Association teachers union also derided the measure as providing an “$8,000 taxpayer funded coupon for millionaires and billionaires,” saying in a tweet that the measure is a “terrible idea.”

Republican supporters have pushed back on such arguments, saying that wealthy voucher recipients would have received the same roughly $8,000 in per-student funding from the state to enroll their children in public schools.

Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, pointed to the potential growth of alternative options as a way to make all systems of education better. The measure would create what are known as “education savings accounts.” The accounts would allow recipients to spend voucher funds on a range of purchases beyond private-school tuition, including instructional materials, tutoring costs and fees for various exams.

“Competition works. Competition makes public schools better. Competition makes private schools better. And the other systems that we actually are encouraging by these education savings accounts,” Massullo said during debate on the House floor.

House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, made the bill a major priority for the 60-day legislative session. Renner cited the spending flexibility, saying that the measure stands to improve “educational outcomes” for students:

“This bill … will forever change the course of education in Florida. It allows for customized education for each and every child in this state,” Renner said after the bill passed Friday.

In another major change, the proposal would allow families of home-schooled students to receive voucher funds.

Home-schooled students who receive the vouchers would be classified as participating in a “personalized education program” under the bill.

Those parents would have to apply for vouchers through what’s known as a scholarship-funding organization and sign an agreement to annually submit a “sworn compliance statement” that would include various requirements.

For example, parents of home-schooled students would have to agree to a requirement that their students take a nationally norm-referenced exam or statewide assessment and report the test results to the organization.

Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, told his fellow members that “I believe in school choice” — but voiced concerns about the potential ballooning of participation in the programs and the volume of vouchers being administered by scholarship-funding organizations.

“I’m really concerned that, come 2027-28, and I’m just basing this on the staff analysis and their figures, one scholarship organization is going to have maybe (500,000), 600,000 students. That is bigger than Dade County and Broward County (school districts) combined,” he said.

The measure would make other changes, such as requiring the education commissioner to create an online portal to help parents navigate Florida’s “range of school choice options.”

The State Board of Education also would be directed to develop recommendations for the governor and Legislature aimed at reducing “regulation of public schools.”

Meanwhile, a disagreement has persisted about how much the voucher expansion would cost the state. House and Senate staff analyses have included different estimates, with the House giving a ballpark estimate of $209.6 million, while a Senate analysis estimated a price tag of roughly $646 million.

But the Florida Policy Institute, a non-profit group that opposes the voucher plan, estimates that the proposal would cost about $4 billion.

“It is alarming that the Florida House passed HB 1 without any guardrails to mitigate the unprecedented cost and impact this legislation would have on our public schools,” Florida Policy Institute CEO Sadaf Knight said in a statement.

House sponsor Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, defended the bill against concerns about its potential costs.

“We’ve heard a lot today about the dangers and the economic concerns that come with opening up eligibility to everyone. But I posit you this, we should be empowering every single family and every single child,” Tuck said.

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