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Florida lawmakers seek to expand voucher eligibility to all K-12 students

A new bill would give families state money for a wide range of education expenses beyond private school tuition.
House Speaker Paul Renner has called for an expansion of school voucher programs in Florida.
House Speaker Paul Renner has called for an expansion of school voucher programs in Florida.
Published Jan. 19|Updated Jan. 19

Florida’s school voucher program could see a major expansion under new legislation filed Thursday by House Republicans.

Standing at a lectern with a sign reading “Your Kids, Your Choice,” House Speaker Paul Renner introduced House Bill 1 to make vouchers available to all Florida children eligible to enter kindergarten through 12th grade.

Children from families with incomes up to 185% of the federal poverty level, which is $55,500 plus $9,509 for each additional family member, would continue to get priority for the funding. Children in foster care also would receive priority.

The bill would allow voucher recipients to use the public funds for more than tuition at a private school and transportation, as is currently in law. Families would be allowed to spend the money on home-schooling, college courses, private tutoring and specialized testing such as Advanced Placement exams, among other expenses.

Students may not receive a voucher while enrolled in public school. The amount is the equivalent of per-student funding in a public school — currently about $8,216 per year.

Families would receive the money through state-funded education savings accounts, a longtime goal for Florida Republicans.

“It’s about freedom and opportunity,” Renner, R-Palm Coast, said during his news conference. “We empower parents and children to decide the education that meets their needs.”

State Rep. Kaylee Tuck, chairperson of the House choice and Innovation subcommittee, is carrying the bill. The Lake Placid Republican said the measure should allow families to customize education for their children.

Renner predicted broad bipartisan support for the bill, which he said also should clear the waiting list for students with special education needs to receive a state scholarship. Currently about 9,400 children are on that list, according to Renner’s staff.

House Democratic Leader Rep. Fentrice Driskell disagreed with Renner’s comments regarding support for the bill. She called it a “defunding of public education” and said she expected most members of her party to oppose it.

“There is nothing in this bill that I like, because we continue to take these public dollars and use them for private purposes,” Driskell, D-Tampa, said.

Other Democrats attending a news conference to counter the Republicans’ announcement held similar views. They said they support vouchers for students who need special services and agreed that parents deserve choices — including within the public schools, which 2.9 million children attend.

“Let’s not defund one institution to fund another one,” said Rep. Felicia Robinson, D-Miami Gardens, who also called for more accountability in the voucher system.

Schools that accept vouchers should at least have certified teachers, Robinson said. And parents who accept funding should have to prove the money is going toward approved education services, added Rep. Yvonne Hayes-Hinson, D-Gainesville.

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”There is no accountability for tracking funds,” said Hinson. “This might be a get rich scheme. I’ve seen it all over the country.”

Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, referenced her city’s Red Hills Academy, a charter school that closed within weeks of opening last year, citing low enrollment and processing issues, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

”They got state funding to go create themselves,” Tant said. “Then they turn the kids back to public schools and guess what? They kept the funding.”

In Palm Beach County, the founder of one charter school was found profiting off the venture by steering school contracts to companies he owned, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Renner said critics who claim the Republicans are seeking to dismantle public education ignore the fact that the Legislature has put more total dollars into district schools every year, something he said would likely continue. He also pointed to the state’s efforts to improve teacher pay, adding millions of dollars to boost the base salary.

“It’s going to be a good year for our traditional public schools as well,” Renner said.

Hearings are set to begin on the bill next week. Florida’s legislative session begins March 7. The Senate does not have a companion bill at this time.

The Legislature frequently has expanded the scope of Florida’s voucher and tax credit scholarship programs.

It has not had as much success with education savings accounts. High-profile lawmakers, including former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, have sponsored bills aiming to create the model over the past dozen years. Each has failed.

Now that the state has scholarships funded directly by taxpayers through the annual budget, and the Legislature has a veto-proof Republican majority, leaders see the possibility for passage as improved. The fact that parents turned to new opportunities such as micro-schools and virtual education during the pandemic also made the concept more attractive to many Floridians.

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