TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House passed a bill Monday that would dramatically increase the number of private school vouchers and grow eligibility to more middle-income families for the program created last year.
The Family Empowerment Scholarship allows lower-income families to attend private schools using public funding. It was created with 18,000 vouchers.
The bill quadruples the rate at which the number of vouchers would grow each year, starting with 28,000 more scholarships in the first year.
Opponents to the bill questioned the need for that increase considering that the number of students enrolling in the program this year came to just under the current 18,000 cap this year.
“What we are doing...is expanding the voucher program exponentially year after year,” said Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota. “There is no evidence that students attending these voucher schools do better than at public schools.”
The bill was amended Friday so that it also would adjust the income bracket that would qualify for the program. According to the current federal poverty line, priority would still be given first to students whose families make $47,638 or less (for a family of four), then families who make $77,250 or less. But after most of the vouchers have been distributed, if there is still money left over, families making up to $83,688 would also be eligible.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said the program needs to accommodate families who wanted to enroll their students but whose income fell just above the threshold.
Sullivan added that though there were enough vouchers this year, “that doesn’t account for more families hearing about it, wanting to be enrolled, going to sign up for it and finding out they make just a little too much money.”
The bill split Democrats, as several broke ranks and implored colleagues to support the bill, saying it would create opportunities for low-income, minority families.
“Why are some of us so focused on public (schools) when the focus should be on quality?” said Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana.
Sullivan also removed a section of the bill that would have reduced the frequency that the nonprofit groups that administer the vouchers would be audited.
Discussion over amending the bill got emotional when Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, proposed three amendments related to anti-LGBTQ policies at some religious, private schools that accept vouchers. An Orlando Sentinel investigation found 83 of those schools prohibit gay or transgender students from attending, or sometimes even the children of same-sex couples.
Two of his amendments were aimed at transparency, either requiring private schools to post their admissions policies online or commissioning a study on discriminatory policies in private schools receiving vouchers. Both failed. So did his broader amendment to prohibit such anti-LGBTQ policies in both private and public schools.
For Smith, it was a last stand on an issue that once dominated session but quickly faded into the background. Smith, as well as Rep. Anna Eskamani, had hoped that they would work with other lawmakers and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to work out a compromise. They held meetings with Republicans as well as with the head of Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers most of the vouchers.
But support never materialized.
“If Jerick and I decide that we want to adopt children, and we go to this voucher-funded school that even though our child may identify as straight and cisgender they can say, ‘Your kind is not welcome here,’” Smith said, referencing his husband in a long speech during which he choked back tears. “That has a very, very ugly meaning.”
Smith invoked the Civil Rights Movement when refuting how Sullivan and others have said there are no documented cases of students being turned away based on the anti-LGBTQ policies.
"I am sure that the owners of that lunch counter in the 50's that had the 'Whites Only' sign outside their establishment also never received any formal complaint," he said.
Smith received firm resistance from both Republicans and some other Democrats who support the program. Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, a pastor, said she felt that she’d been discriminated against by some of her colleagues for her stance.
She, too, also made a tearful speech, saying she worried that religious schools would be harassed for having such policies online, which she said violated their religious freedom.
“I think it’s very sad in America that an environment has been created where people are afraid to speak on certain issues,” Daniels said. “Can we just be a little bit more tolerant?”
Defending their rejection of Smith’s amendments on Monday, Sullivan launched into attacks on the Orlando Sentinel, saying that they have been writing negative stories about voucher programs for years, and when those didn’t get traction, “they got creative.”
“In my opinion, they decided to make pawns of our students who are associated with the LGBTQ community,” she said. “They decided to go school by school and fabricate this picture that there are hundreds of students who are being discriminated (against) ... no newspaper should co-opt this program and try to single-handedly dismantle it.”
The bill passed 81 to 39.