TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers advanced efforts to expand Florida’s private school voucher programs even as the embers of a fiery debate over anti-LGBTQ policies in some of the schools sparked renewed conflict.
The House and Senate moved bills Tuesday that propose to more than double the number of Family Empowerment Scholarships, which are vouchers that allow lower-income families to send their children to private schools. They are funded using the pot of money typically reserved for public schools.
This voucher was just created last year, and nearly 18,000 were handed out. The bills would increase next year’s number of vouchers to about 46,000, with an annual increase each year equal to 1% of the total Florida student population.
“There’s so much we’re doing for public education,” said Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, the bill’s sponsor. “This is our one bill for private school choice.”
But superseding the typical controversy over vouchers was the debate over private schools that have policies barring gay and transgender students from attending. The issue was first reported by the Orlando Sentinel, which found that there were 83 private, religious schools accepting tax credit-funded scholarships with these policies in writing.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, proposed two amendments that aimed to outline the nature of this problem. He said only some private schools have these policies, but they’re giving the rest “a bad name.”
One amendment would have mandated that the state policy researchers complete a study on discriminatory admission policies in private schools that accept vouchers. The other would have required those private schools to publish their admissions policies online.
“Members, this is a compromise amendment,” Smith said of the latter. “The amendment does not require any voucher school to not discriminate ... we’re not telling them what policy they should have, we’re just asking for transparency.”
Both amendments failed via voice votes, with few members weighing in other than fellow Democrats calling for support. Smith, along with Democratic Reps. Anna Eskamani and Shevrin Jones, have a meeting scheduled with Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran on Wednesday to discuss this issue.
Sullivan said that “no matter what orientation (students) associate with, I think every student has dignity." She added that gay and transgender students are also bullied in public schools, and can use a scholarship to attend a private school to find a better environment.
The bill, House Bill 7067, also reduces the frequency of audits that the nonprofit group that administers the vouchers would receive, from once per year to once every three years. In light of an ongoing, explosive scandal over the misuse of funds at a nonprofit the state designated as the clearinghouse for money for domestic violence shelters, Democrats raised questions about that piece.
"This bill is creating less transparency and less oversight in a system that already lacks oversight," said Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota.
"Certainly there's been a great disservice in what's gone on at the Coalition (Against Domestic Violence)," said Sullivan. "I would not compare these two (organizations), I think they are very different."
The bill was also amended Tuesday to include some of the testing changes recommended in the new state academic standards, including the elimination of the required 10th grade geometry test and the 9th grade English test. It would mandate that all high-schoolers take a civic literacy test as well as either the SAT or the ACT.
In the Senate Education Appropriations committee earlier in the day, a bill previously related to teachers' professional development also received a massive amendment that added in a slew of other bills, including the expansion of the private school vouchers.
The Senate bill sponsor, Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said that rapid increase is designed to alleviate the wait-list of families who are qualified for low-income vouchers.
That prompted criticism that public schools could see lost programs over this funding going to more vouchers.
"When money is taken away then the school principal has to decide if they want to maintain electives or not. ... from experience I know there are students who only went to school because of the electives," said Alexander Smith, a pastor and former teacher.
But Diaz replied that the state has proven it can afford both vouchers and funding its public schools, especially this year, when the Senate has proposed setting aside $500 million to boost teacher salaries at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis. (The House has proposed $650 million).
Diaz's bill, Senate Bill 1220, also incorporated some of the testing changes requested in the new standards.
Finally, it also now includes expansion of teachers’ professional development programs. It would create a pilot program within certain districts, including Pinellas, to provide extra funding for teachers’ continued training.