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TALLAHASSEE, Florida. – A massive expansion of Florida’s school choice programs that would make all students eligible for taxpayer-backed vouchers is headed for the government. Ron DeSantis, after the Republican-controlled Senate passed the measure on Thursday amid warnings from Democrats.
In a 26-12 vote along party straights, senators gave final approval to the measure (HB 1), which the House passed last week.
DeSantis has already pledged to sign the proposal, which includes removing income eligibility requirements that are part of current voucher programs. This has been a top priority of House Speaker Paul Renner, a Republican from Palm Coast who was in the Senate chamber on Thursday.
“We fund students in this state. The parents have spoken,” said Senate sponsor Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee.
Under the bill, students would be eligible to receive vouchers if they are “residents of this state” and “eligible to enroll in K-12” at a public school.
The measure includes a tiered “priority” system for students to receive vouchers. Students with household incomes below 185% of the federal poverty level, or about $51,000 for a family of four, would get first priority. Next come students whose family income is between 185% of the poverty line and 400% of the poverty line, or about $111,000 for a family of four.
Outnumbered Senate Democrats slammed the measure during a floor debate, calling it a potential document for wealthy people to seek out the good ones.
“Let’s face it, if you’re a parent paying for a private school, why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of this program?” I mean, it’s going to be corporate welfare for parents who are already paying for private schools,” the senator said. Lori Berman, D-Boca Raton, said.
“Millionaires, billionaires, we have no limits in this bill. Anyone would be eligible to get up to the $8,000 we’re talking about,” Berman added, referring to the amount of per-student funding that would be provided through vouchers.
Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, argued that expanding access to vouchers would cut funding for traditional public schools.
“Parents of these students will only get a rebate for private school tuition they are already paying. And that means the funds we have to pay for public schools will be reduced by the number of students accepting the voucher,” Davis said.
But Simon pushed back against such arguments from Democrats.
“We are spending record amounts in this year’s budget on our public schools. They won’t tell you. Because they don’t fight over the kids. They don’t argue for the parents. They are advocating for the system,” Simon said.
Another major change in the bill would allow home-schooled students to receive voucher funds. But the measure would require those students to be classified as participating in a “personalized education program,” which would come with certain requirements such as students having to take national benchmark tests or statewide assessments. .
The proposal would also create so-called “education savings accounts,” allowing recipients to spend funds on a range of purchases beyond private school tuition. Some of these purchases could include tutoring fees, fees for various exams, and contracted services provided by public schools.
Cost estimates for the bill in the House and Senate varied as it progressed through the Legislative Assembly. The Senate this week released a total of $2.2 billion, though that number also includes costs for students currently receiving vouchers,
The nonprofit Florida Policy Institute, which opposes the voucher plan, estimated the measure would cost about $4 billion.
“As each chamber rolls out its education budgets, one thing is clear: the large and projected rising cost of universal vouchers under HB 1 poses a threat to school district budgets for the foreseeable future,” said the Florida CEO. Policy Institute, Sadaf Knight, in a statement after the bill was passed.
Proponents, however, said the bill would increase competition between schools, provide options for parents and ultimately improve the quality of education.
“The universal school choice means that every school has a chance to compete for students, and their parents can decide the best fit,” Senate Speaker Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said in a statement.
Passidomo also pointed to a portion of the bill that directs the State Board of Education to provide recommendations to the governor and the legislature regarding the reduction of “regulation of public schools.”
“Furthermore, by reducing the red tape that burdens our traditional public schools, these institutions, which have served our communities for generations, will have a significant chance to compete with other school choice options,” Passidomo said.
Major voucher expansion headed to DeSantis
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