Florida Senate passes major education bill that creates new school voucher

The bill passed on party lines despite opponents’ concerns that it may violate a previous state Supreme Court decision.
Published April 25, 2019|Updated April 25, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate passed a massive education bill Thursday that marks a key departure from the state’s traditional financing of public education.

The measure, Senate Bill 7070, passed 23-17 along party lines, a major victory for advocates and parents wishing to expand different school options paid for by the state. It steers money from the state’s per-student funding currently reserved almost solely for Florida’s 67 public school districts into private school vouchers for students from low-income families, called Family Empowerment Scholarships.

“It’s paramount that our students have opportunity, regardless of their ZIP code or status, to reach the best educational environment possible,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, who sponsored the bill. “I think it’s a monumental day today in Florida.”

Yet its passage also sets up a legal battle that, for Democrats and one powerful Republican lawmaker, raises concerns that it directly conflicts with a 2006 decision by the Florida Supreme Court.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill, said on the floor of the Senate that this bill is a clear violation of the state Supreme Court’s decision, called Bush vs. Holmes, in which the court struck down a similar program under Gov. Jeb Bush because it used state money to fund students’ attendance at religious schools.

“This is probably going to be challenged,” Thurston said. “You’re saying, ‘This is the same thing we tried to do 14 years ago, but we want you to do it now.’”

Republican Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, the second-in-command to the Senate president, has also voiced long-running concerns with the constitutionality of this part of the bill.

He said previously that the Legislature should instead fund the new voucher through tax-deductible donations from private companies, which is how a separate scholarship program already works.

“It would be consistent to have the (Family) Empowerment scholarships also funded out of those credits … and that’s something that is not a direct confrontation of the Bush vs. Holmes decision,” Simmons said. He voted for Thursday’s bill and was an architect of a separate portion of it that would allow district schools in low-income areas to get more funding for extra student services.

Yet, the state’s highest court is not the same as it was back in 2006, after Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed three new conservative judges in January. Advocates for voucher programs like the Family Empowerment Scholarship have long hoped the Bush v. Holmes decision would be overturned.

In February, DeSantis expressed enthusiasm for a similar scholarship program, claiming a broad new definition for public education.

“If the taxpayer is paying for the education, it’s public education,” DeSantis told an Orlando crowd.

Backers say the new program would allow the thousands of students on the waiting list for a different voucher to have access to these funds. The bill would provide up to 18,000 additional vouchers with a cost of about $130 million.

The bill also makes major changes to the state’s teacher bonus program, called Best and Brightest. One piece many teachers have applauded: It removes educators’ SAT or ACT scores from when they were in high school as part of the eligibility criteria, something teachers and DeSantis have said was irrelevant to their job performance.

There would be three categories of bonuses:

• New teachers who are experts in certain subjects, such as math, science, or civics, that are needed in many districts.

• Teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective” who also work in a school that has improved a certain amount over the prior three years.

• Teachers or other school staff selected by the principal who must also have high marks on their evaluations.

The bill does not, however, achieve what the teachers’ union and many Democrats have sought, which was to use the millions set aside for these bonuses instead for an across-the-board raise in teacher salaries.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said Thursday that because teacher salaries are negotiated at the district level, there is no guarantee that boosts to certain areas of school funding will result in raises. She noted that 97 percent of K-12 teachers are rated “effective” or “highly effective” so many will benefit from the new bonus structure. However, other staff, such as counselors and prekindergarten teachers have not been eligible and would not be under this bill.

“Unfortunately, the Legislature does not negotiate raises,” she said. “I wanted to make sure … the teachers actually got the money. … not based on your test scores from 20 years ago but based on how your school did.”

The bill also contains several expansions of the states’ “Schools of Hope” program, which allows charter schools to open near traditional public schools deemed “persistently low-performing” because of failing school grades. The bill would widen the net of which schools are considered “low-performing” by adjusting the definition, plus it would allow “Hope” charters to open in low-income areas designated by the federal government.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who was in Tallahassee watching the passage of the bill, expressed concern about that piece in particular.

“The passage of this law will force a number of schools, that had made improvements perhaps, below the water-line again,” he said.

Finally, the proposal would also ease the requirement that aspiring teachers pass a general knowledge exam, giving them more time to pass that test and waiving re-take fees.

The House is expected to pass a version of this bill in the next week, when it will then go to DeSantis for his signature.