School voucher expansion bills set for Florida special session

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School building. By littleny via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — With a special legislative session poised to start Monday, the Florida House and Senate on Thursday released proposals that could lead to more students receiving school vouchers through a program aimed at helping children with disabilities.

The proposals (HB 3C and SB 4-C) would effectively lift a cap this school year on students who receive vouchers under the program, known as the “Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.”

Under a formula in law, the program was capped at 40,913 students this year, up from 26,500 students during the 2022-2023 school year, according to Senate and House staff analyses.

But the bills would eliminate the use of the formula this year and say the maximum number of students participating in the program would be the number “determined eligible” by the Florida Department of Education and non-profit groups that administer vouchers.

The staff analyses do not include estimates of how many students could get the aid.

The House analysis said the change would have “indeterminate fiscal impact.” The Senate analysis said “any additional students will be absorbed” with money already in the state budget. That is because lawmakers created a $350 million “educational enrollment stabilization fund” to address potential school-district enrollment changes during the year.

Lawmakers will start the special session Monday to address a series of issues, including the voucher program, assistance after Hurricane Idalia and additional state sanctions against Iran.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, issued a joint proclamation last month that said the session will include an effort to provide “a mechanism to increase the number of students served under the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with disabilities.”

Passidomo also sent a memo to senators that said lawmakers would “address demand” for the program.

“With the start of the new school year, we are seeing an increase in the number of students with unique abilities applying for the scholarship. Students with unique abilities receive additional funding for their scholarships, depending on their needs,” the memo said.

The voucher bills are sponsored by House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairwoman Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City, and Sen. Jay Collins, R-Tampa. The House Appropriations Committee on Monday will take up Tomkow’s bill, while the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee will consider Collins’ bill.

The Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a massive expansion of the state’s voucher programs during this spring’s regular legislative session. But some school-choice advocates have called for eliminating the cap on participation in the program for students with disabilities.

“It’s a cap that limits the number of kids in the program. It’s not that the providers don’t have any space. It’s a very different conversation. The providers are saying we’ve got space. But the state has said, we put a limit on how much money we’re willing to spend,” Steve Hicks, president of the Florida Coalition of Scholarship Schools, said in a recent interview with The News Service of Florida.

The formula in current law allows the program to grow by certain amounts each year, based on the state’s overall “exceptional student education” enrollment, excluding gifted students, according to the House analysis. That led to the 40,913-student cap this year.

While the cap would be lifted this year under the bills, the formula would be used in the future.

The vouchers can be used for a variety of services in addition to private school tuition. For example, they can be used for instructional materials, tutoring and fees for specialized summer and after-school programs, according to the House analyses.

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