Florida Senate Republicans propose new voucher, changes to teacher bonus program

The Senate revealed its plan to file a major education package bill before the first week of session, which begins March 5.
Thirty-five kindergarten students pack the rug for a story and lesson as teachers Ann Renee Evans, center back, and Cassandra Hinson, right, lead the way at Connerton Elementary. Times | 2013
Thirty-five kindergarten students pack the rug for a story and lesson as teachers Ann Renee Evans, center back, and Cassandra Hinson, right, lead the way at Connerton Elementary. Times | 2013
Published February 21
Updated February 22

After a string of announcements from Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiling his proposals for a new school voucher and other changes to education policy, the Florida Senate responded with its own plan to shape the state’s schools — which had some differences.

At a press conference at the Capitol on Thursday, three top Republican senators said the Senate is seeking to create a new school voucher called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which would help reduce the lengthy waiting list of students awaiting the state’s existing scholarship for low-income students, called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Unlike the existing scholarship, though, the new voucher would draw its funding from the pot of money typically set aside solely to be distributed to districts based on the number of students they have — a dramatic change. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is funded through corporate donations that the companies deduct from their taxes.

“My plan is to provide relief for these kids that are on a waiting list and these parents that want provide a better educational setting for their child and they are not able to simply because there are arbitrary financial barriers in place that won’t allow them,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.

The statewide teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, called this move dangerous for the state’s public schools.

“This plan represents a monumental shift of taxpayer funds to private schools,” said union president Fedrick Ingram in a statement. “What our students need is a monumental commitment to their neighborhood public schools, the schools that educate most of our kids.”

Diaz said the Senate’s proposal is very similar to the Equal Opportunity Scholarship that DeSantis proposed last week, which relied on the same funding source. However, there is major difference in eligibility, as the Senate’s proposed scholarship would only be available to students who had previously been enrolled in public school or who were entering kindergarten. DeSantis’ plan aimed to make the voucher available for students even if they had only attended private schools, a wish-list item for school choice advocates.

There is also a slight difference in the income eligibility requirements between what DeSantis’ proposed, which allowed families making up to 265 percent of the poverty line, which is higher than the 260 percent provided in current law. The Senate is looking to keep that eligibility requirement at 260 percent, Diaz said.

The Senate incorporated DeSantis’ ask that teachers’ SAT and ACT test scores should no longer be factored into their consideration for recruitment and retention bonuses under the Best and Brightest program. But the Senators went a step further, saying they want to create a new category for teacher bonuses that could be awarded by school principals who see excelling educators who weren’t awarded bonuses based on the typical metrics of student performance.

Diaz also said they would follow DeSantis’ recommendation that to receive a bonus, teachers must work at a school that is improving its letter grade, with exceptions for schools that are consistently performing at the top grade levels.

“We don’t want to punish a school that has been at the top because they have a small blip,” Diaz said. “It’s hard to stay up there.”

Finally, the Senate would also like to remove some requirements for teacher certification, giving more time for prospective educators to pass the general knowledge exam, according to Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who was also at Thursday’s announcement. And they are hoping to expand a grant program for schools in low-income communities to offer health care, social services and other aid to students who need it, said Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs.

The policy proposals will be filed as one, large package bill by the first week of the legislative session, which begins March 5. That’s a strategy that has been used by the House in the past, which faced criticism in 2017 for combining many education bills into one omnibus, House Bill 7069, at the eleventh hour of the session.

Critics say package bills create a take-it-or-leave-it bargaining environment, but Diaz said filing it as a package from the start rather than bundling bills together at the end will be more transparent.

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