Florida House bill would ‘dramatically ’ expand school vouchers

The proposal differs from a similar bill in the Senate, setting the stage for the two chambers to work out the details.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, presents the House version of a bill to expand private school scholarships and vouchers to the Education Committee on Wednesday.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, presents the House version of a bill to expand private school scholarships and vouchers to the Education Committee on Wednesday. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published Mar. 24, 2021|Updated Mar. 24, 2021

Florida’s contentious battle over school choice and vouchers got a jump start Wednesday as the state House unveiled its own version of legislation to expand the billion-dollar programs.

House Republicans have many of the same goals as their Senate counterparts, who first introduced the idea of establishing education savings accounts to help families pay for private schooling and other education costs.

But the 61-page House proposal, at less than half the length of the Senate plan, differed in some of its approaches on how to get to that end result. Anticipating some give and take on the concept, the Senate had stalled final action on its own bill for the past three weeks.

Now, Republican leaders in both chambers are expected to hash out the differences as they reach the midpoint of this year’s 60-day legislative session.

Related: Florida’s wide-ranging school voucher bill ready for Senate vote

The key differences appear in the funding.

The Senate plan would merge five key school choice scholarships and make them state-funded. It would then convert them into education savings accounts that families could use to pay for children’s private schooling, therapy or even college savings.

To do that, bill sponsor Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, proposed creating a trust fund to collect corporate donations and state funds that will pay for school voucher programs.

The House would not go that far.

It would merge two scholarships for students with disabilities — McKay and Gardiner — and make them education savings accounts.

But it would not create a trust fund. Instead, the House would keep the state’s tax credit and “Hope” scholarships separate from the budget system, with outside organizations to collect and manage the funds.

“I think it is a philosophical difference. But again, the big picture is, let’s get something done that makes the world better for parents and for students,” said bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican.

Fine played down the differences with the Senate.

“I think both sides want the same thing: more choices for more parents. How we get there is being looked at a bit differently,” he said.

Fine introduced the measure as one that would “dramatically” increase the amount of money per voucher, and increase the number of children eligible to receive one.

How much these changes will all cost remains unknown.

When asked about the fiscal impact, Fine — chairman of House PreK-12 appropriations — would not provide a number. He said some estimates will be unveiled Thursday, when the House is scheduled to unveil its proposed education budget.

“This is not to move money from the left pocket to the right pocket,” he said. " It’s actually putting more money in the pocket.”

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Fine faced a handful of questions during the hour-long discussion on the bill.

Rep. Tray McCurdy, an Orlando Democrat, asked why the bill would give students money from school transportation funding even though private schools don’t provide transportation. Fine made clear his fundamental position that “the funds should follow the students.”

Beyond that, Fine said, their parents should get to choose how to use that money, including investing in college savings, if they want.

The bill also would take money the Legislature allocated for teacher raises and include it in the scholarship and voucher amounts.

Florida Education Association researcher Cathy Boehm mentioned that aspect, and a few others, as reasons she had concerns about the proposal. She urged the lawmakers to protect public schools while taking steps to broaden the choice programs.

Senate President Wilton Simpson is reviewing the bill and working to hash out the differences with the House, his spokeswoman Katie Betta said on Wednesday.

“There are many similarities between the two, and the president wants to spend time taking a look at the House bill and discussing it with Sen. Diaz and other senators,” Betta said. “School choice is an important issue for the president, and he’s confident we can get to a place where the two bills line up.”

Florida has the biggest scholarship and voucher system in the nation. And in the past few years, it has aggressively grown its initiative — even amid heavy criticism that the efforts were hurting the public education system that the Florida Constitution deems a “paramount duty” of the state.

Related: Major education bill to create new school voucher and redo teacher bonuses passes Florida House

As a result, many eyes across the nation are watching its progress on this latest proposal.

It is not the only state considering contentious school choice legislation this year, though.

In Kentucky, for example, the governor has received a bill to create tax credits that would help pay for private school education. The measure also would allow public education funding to follow students to schools outside their districts.

Similar initiatives also have been proposed in Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, among other states, with varying degrees of success.

In the Florida House committee, members did not debate the bill, which has one more stop before heading to the floor. Three Democrats — Susan Valdes of Tampa, Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes and James Bush III of Miami — joined the majority in advancing the measure.

Wayne Bertsch, president of the Florida Education Legislative Liaisons, said he couldn’t guess which items would ultimately win out — though he was more certain that changes to the voucher and scholarship programs will happen.

“We all know the process,” Bertsch said. “What the final outcome will look like is the big question.”