TALLAHASSEE — A far-reaching education bill that creates a new private school voucher and restructures the state’s teacher bonus program is on its way to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk, after the Florida House passed it on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 7070 achieves a goal that has been sought by Republicans since Jeb Bush was governor: funding a voucher for low-income families to send their children to private schools by using the state pot of per-student funding for public schools.
Bush, 66, was on the floor of the House when the bill came to a final vote, along with commissioner of education and former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, plus Senate leaders, all of whom stood up and applauded when the bill passed 76-39.
“Almost 20 years ago, one visionary leader started Florida and Florida’s children on a path to choice,” House Speaker José Oliva said when introducing Bush to the members.
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Bush posted a photo to Twitter that showed him with the Legislature’s leadership as well as the sponsors of the bill in the House and Senate.
“Incredible day in Tallahassee to witness the passage of historic legislation that will usher in greater educational freedom for Florida families,” he wrote.
When Bush helped pass a similar program during his tenure from 1999 to 2007, it was ruled unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court — raising serious questions about how this proposal will fare in the judicial branch. In January, DeSantis appointed three new conservative justices who may rule differently on the bill. Still, it’s unclear how far the new court will stray from that 2006 decision, called Bush v. Holmes.
“The notion that the very clear Florida Supreme Court precedent is going to be disregarded here simply because there are new justices on the court, honestly is an insult to all of those new justices,” said Democratic Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura. “They will reject this law as unconstitutional as the previous iteration was rejected.”
The bill’s passage was mostly on party lines, however, several Democrats also supported it, including Rep. Susan Valdes of Tampa and Rep. Wengay “Newt” Newton of St. Petersburg.
The bill creates a maximum of 18,000 new vouchers, called “Family Empowerment Scholarships,” for a cost of about $130 million. They would be available to families making 300 percent of the federal poverty level (about $77,000 for a family of four) or less. Families with the lowest incomes would be prioritized.
“On this, the 57th day of this session and all the committee weeks in this session I have been truly discouraged by the partisanship,” said freshman Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami. “The heart of this conversation is the issue of equity ... I believe at the end of the day, this is about the American Dream.”
On Monday, Democrats proposed about 50 amendments to this bill, all of which failed or were withdrawn. Many of them focused on increased accountability for non-district schools receiving public money, such as requiring private schools that accept vouchers to keep close track of students’ academic progress and report it to the state, or barring people with prior fraud convictions from applying to open charter schools.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, proposed an amendment that would make it illegal for private schools to get voucher money if they refuse admission to students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Supporters of the bill compared this voucher program to college scholarships funded by the state which can also be used at private, religious colleges and universities.
“I don’t see anyone on the other side of this issue saying that is wrong,” said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay.
Smith rejected that comparison.
“Taxpayer dollars that go to scholarships that are redeemed at higher ed faith-based religious institutions, are accountable in some way — as opposed to complete and total lack of oversight or standards that we are not requiring with any of the provisions in this new voucher,” he said. “We’re funding directly out of (per-student money) at the expense of our public schools.”
The teacher bonus section of the bill marked a bittersweet victory for teachers’ unions, whose members have vocally opposed the way the bonus program, called “Best and Brightest,” considered their past SAT and ACT scores as part of the criteria for extra compensation. Tuesday’s bill removed that requirement, and instead creates a three-tiered bonus system. The three tiers are for new teachers who are experts in certain subjects that are needed in many districts; those rated “effective” or “highly effective” whose school has improved a certain amount over the prior three years; and teachers or other staff selected by the principal who must also have high evaluation marks.
However, teachers say they prefer across-the-board salary raises, rather than bonuses that hinge on not just their individual performance, but that of the schools where they are assigned.
The bill also expands the state’s program which allows certain charter schools to open near district public schools deemed as “persistently low-performing.” The bill changes the definition of “persistently low-performing” to include more schools with low school grades, plus allows these charter schools to open in low-income areas as determined by the federal government.
The bill also eases the requirement that new teachers pass a general knowledge exam, giving them more time to pass that test and limiting the fees charged for retaking it.