Florida lawmakers have been given two wildly different cost estimates as they consider a bill that would expand school vouchers and offer education savings accounts to all school-aged children in the state.
The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, put the number at $209.6 million Thursday as the Florida House took its first look at the bill’s price tag. But the independent Florida Policy Institute says the measure could add billions to the state budget.
Tuck said her estimate was based on expanding eligibility for the private school vouchers, and increasing the participation cap for students receiving vouchers for special needs programs.
At a meeting of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, State Rep. Danny Alvarez, R-Riverview, picked up on the differing estimates and asked Tuck to explain the gap.
She said the institute counted students who already receive scholarships, and said those would not affect the expense. The group also included students currently attending public schools who might take a scholarship, she noted, suggesting they also would not impact the bottom line because they already are funded in the budget.
The institute’s estimate accounted for home education students who were to be part of the program. But because of concerns raised, Tuck said, the home education section was revamped to take those students out.
She said the biggest factor was that the institute counted all students currently enrolled in private schools and not receiving any state support. The House analysis projected its number by looking at 50% of those students at private schools that are participating in the scholarship and voucher program now.
According to state data, about 1,990 of Florida’s 2,850 private schools participate in the program.
During public comment, Monroe County School Board member Sue Woltanski urged lawmakers to reconsider the potential financial effect.
“It is nonsensical to believe that half of the families that are currently paying to send their children to these private schools will not apply to get the free money. Of course they will, especially if it’s an (education savings account) and they can spend it on more than just simple tuition,” Woltanski said.
“The state should be prepared to fund all students attending these schools,” she said. “And they should expect that more schools will join in allowing their families to receive this tax-funded tuition rebate as well.”
In voicing her opposition, Rep. Patricia Williams, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, picked up on this concern along with others that have commonly been voiced against voucher programs. Those included the lack of controls over voucher receiving schools, which do not face the same accountability requirements as public schools.
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“I am of the belief that if you are going to get state of Florida money, you should have to follow state of Florida standards,” added Rep. Lavon Bracy Davis, D-Ocoee.
Tuck indicated a willingness to modify the bill to accommodate for some issues, such as requiring services for students with special needs, and eliminating regulations on public schools, as the Senate has proposed in its version.
After passing the subcommittee 11-3, with two Democrats in favor, the bill next heads to the House Education and Employment Committee.
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