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House voucher expansion bill passes its first committee after emotional debate

A teacher teared up as she talked about Florida’s teacher shortage and one lawmaker said this was this type of bill that caused him to run for office.
[Miami Herald file photo]
[Miami Herald file photo]
Published Mar. 14, 2019
Updated Mar. 14, 2019

A House bill that would create a new publicly funded private school voucher passed its first committee on Thursday, with only two of the committee’s Democrats against it.

“This bill right here is the reason why I ran for the Legislature,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, who’s a prominent school choice advocate. “It’s about favoring the parents who have one goal in mind: the best education of their children ... It’s a crime we have not done this sooner.”

The House bill, like its Senate companion, proposes to create a new voucher called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which is designed to eliminate the waiting list of about 14,000 low-income students for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Both chambers propose to fund the voucher through general revenue dollars typically set aside for school districts.

However, the House version represents a much more aggressive approach. Rather than offer 14,000 vouchers — like the Senate does — to match the number of students on the wait list, the House proposes to fund double, at 28,000 vouchers for the next school year.

The House also would allow families from a much broader income bracket to be eligible. The House bill would allow families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $77,250 for a family of four, to apply for the voucher. That income threshold would steadily rise over time, allowing families that make up to $96,572 to participate in the 2022-2023 school year.

The Senate proposed a cutoff around $67,000 for next school year and does not raise its threshold over time.

One teacher, Aimee Smith of Hardy County, cried during her testimony before the committee, saying this program would further cause underfunded public schools to lose out on even more money during a mounting teacher shortage.

“Sometimes it feels, as public school teachers, the state has tied an anchor to our ankles and parents get mad when we cant swim as fast as the private schools,” she said. “I implore you to focus on funding our public education system and not vouchers.”

Despite the passionate opposition, several parents as well as a representative of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity advocated for going even further, and eventually offering vouchers to all of Florida’s students regardless of their income. Some lawmakers agreed.

“If I have any criticism of this bill at all it’s that we’re not doing this for everybody," said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, after praising the measure.

Despite several Democrats on the committee voicing concerns with the high income levels allowed to participate in the new voucher, only two Democrats of the four who were present voted against the bill.

“The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program was initially sold as an attempt to help the children of low-income parents get out of failing schools,” said Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando. “Now we’re raising the income limit ... At what point in time do we stop?”

READ MORE: Ron DeSantis and GOP poised to redefine Florida public education

Because of a previous Florida Supreme Court precedent that struck down school vouchers funded through general revenue dollars, there’s much debate over whether this bill would be considered constitutional. The new, more conservative supreme court could reverse the old precedent.

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, who chairs the committee, said she believes the bill is constitutional.

“The first step is to pass it," she said. “Then it’s up to the courts."

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