Gov. Ron DeSantis signs bill allowing private school vouchers

The governor scheduled stops at three private schools, including one in St. Petersburg, before taking his official action.
State Rep. Wengay Newton speaks to community leaders, school children, fellow lawmakers and others at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in St. Petersburg on Thursday in support of the state's school voucher bill. Gov. Ron DeSantis, far left, also delivered remarks and was scheduled to sign the bill into law later Thursday. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE   |   Times]
State Rep. Wengay Newton speaks to community leaders, school children, fellow lawmakers and others at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in St. Petersburg on Thursday in support of the state's school voucher bill. Gov. Ron DeSantis, far left, also delivered remarks and was scheduled to sign the bill into law later Thursday. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
Published May 9, 2019|Updated May 9, 2019

Florida’s government will set aside $130 million this year to pay private school tuition for up to 18,000 low-income students under a wide-ranging education bill signed into law Thursday by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The 92-page measure also: changes how teachers can qualify for the controversial Best and Brightest bonus; further expands the playing field for charter schools; and creates a new grant enabling struggling schools to address some of their students’ social needs.

But the bill’s signature provision creates a voucher program, to be known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship, a goal of Florida Republican leaders for the last two decades.

Although vouchers were struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 and the concept is sure to be challenged again, Republicans say it stands a better chance of prevailing this time, thanks to the new governor’s recent appointment of three conservative justices to the state’s high court.

Before signing the bill in Miami Gardens, DeSantis carried his pro-voucher argument around the state.

“At the end of the day, your success shouldn’t be limited by family income, by what ZIP code you live in,” he told students at a Christian school in Jacksonville. “It should be based on you working hard and getting the most out of your God-given talents. This scholarship gives you the opportunity to do that.”

Later, at Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy in St. Petersburg, DeSantis called it a historic day and said the new program would be “a real turning point in the lives of thousands and thousands of kids.”

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It was the second hotly debated education bill the governor signed in two days, following on the heels of a measure to allow teachers to carry guns in districts that participate in the state’s school guardian program. That bill, too, faces the prospect of a legal fight.

DeSantis had made no secret of his support for the voucher concept before his election, saying he wanted to eliminate the waiting list for tax-credit scholarships. That program, like vouchers, steers Florida children to private schools. But, unlike vouchers, it does so without directly drawing from the state budget.

Senate Education Committee chairman Manny Diaz Jr., who traveled with the governor on Thursday, said it took DeSantis to bring vouchers to fruition after several years of failed proposals.

“We wouldn’t be here today without your leadership,” he told DeSantis in Jacksonville.

Later in St. Petersburg, Diaz, who said he has been working toward this day since he entered the Legislature in 2012, told students at Mt. Moriah that the lesson in the bill is to never give up.

“And with God’s help, you will cross the goal line,” he said.

In both cities, DeSantis spoke alongside educators who had only kind words for the governor and the program. Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin — the founder of Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville, a 23-year-old school that serves mostly low-income and minority children — said the scholarships will give a leg up to many students who otherwise could not afford to get out of their low-performing district schools.

“We celebrate with those parents who can now take advantage of the Family Empowerment Scholarship,” McLaughlin said.

Pastor Robert Ward said Mt. Moriah’s school in St. Petersburg educates 56 students, 40 of whom rely on the tax credit scholarship, which draws funds from corporate donors that receive tax forgiveness from the state in exchange.

“Our school simply wouldn’t exist without the tax credit scholarship,” he said.

State Rep. Wengay Newton, a Democrat whose district includes Mt. Moriah, also was on hand to praise the bill.

"There’s going to be politics on both sides, but at the end of the day, we have a simple charge, and it’s to look out for these young kids,” Newton said.

During a brief question-and-answer session in St. Petersburg, DeSantis said private schools that accept vouchers would not be graded like their counterparts in the public school system.

“The best form of accountability is parental choice,” he said. “If the parent is not happy with the production in a school, then they have the ability to go somewhere else. That’s not the case if you didn’t have these scholarships.”

In Jacksonville, he was asked about criticism that the voucher program will take money from public schools that could have used those dollars to make improvements.

He noted that the $130 million set aside is a small part of the overall education budget, which, he added, provides more money for school districts than last year. The $21.8 billion spending plan includes $248 more per student, including $75 in “unrestricted” dollars to be used by districts as they see fit.

Moreover, he added, each student voucher would total only 95 percent of what it costs the school district to educate that student. DeSantis said he wanted to provide resources to both the public and other options.

“I’ve never tried to denigrate the school districts ... because the vast majority of students are going to go there,” he said. “We want to make sure we are clicking on all cylinders. ... I don’t think any of this stuff is mutually exclusive.”

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The bill, SB 7070, prioritizes vouchers for lower-income students, but also expands eligibility to higher levels of wealth. Under the new criteria, families of four earning about $77,000 would qualify.

It also includes several other initiatives, many of which Senate leaders outlined at the beginning of session as their education policy priorities.

Among them, the measure changes the criteria for teachers to receive annual salary bonuses through the Best and Brightest award devised in 2015. Lawmakers did away with using teachers’ old college entrance exam scores, but replaced those with new criteria that some educators said would be even more onerous and unfair. DeSantis said he wanted to reward top teachers at high-performing schools, and lauded the new system as a way to get that done.

The legislation expanded the reach of the Schools of Hope charter school program into more communities by extending the definition of acceptable locations to include “Opportunity Zones” established in recent federal tax law. It also changed the eligibility requirements for existing tax-credit and related scholarships, making them available to families at up to 300 percent of the poverty level.

In addition, it did away with a grant program that provided up to $2,000 per student to up to 25 low-performing schools with plans to turn around their results. Instead, it created a community schools grant that would give up to $500 per student to schools that create plans to improve academic outcomes while meeting community and family social needs.

That’s not all. The bill lifted some school construction requirements by allowing districts to use locally generated tax revenue to pay for projects without going through a state approval process. And it eased some of the testing requirements for teachers on temporary certification who have struggled to pass the state general knowledge test.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @JeffSolochek.