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Bills to expand Florida’s school voucher programs are on a fast track

Concerns remain over the cost and the impact on public schools.
 
State representatives Susan Valdés, D-Tampa, and Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, present amendments to House Bill 1 on school vouchers and education savings accounts as the measure moved through its final committee on March 10, 2023. The legislation now goes to the House floor.
State representatives Susan Valdés, D-Tampa, and Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, present amendments to House Bill 1 on school vouchers and education savings accounts as the measure moved through its final committee on March 10, 2023. The legislation now goes to the House floor. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published March 10, 2023|Updated March 10, 2023

Entering the 2023 legislative session, House and Senate leaders made clear their top education priority: giving all Florida families the ability choose private or home schooling, with the help of taxpayer money.

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

One week in, two bills designed to make that happen are on a fast track.

The measure tagged House Bill 1 to signify its high profile has made it through all its committee stops — the latest on Friday morning — and is on the way to the floor as early as next week. The Senate version is on a similar trajectory, with the PreK-12 Education Appropriations subcommittee advancing SB 202 this week without having a cost estimate attached.

“This bill delivers on a promise that many of us have made,” Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said Friday during debate in the House Education Quality subcommittee. “Every child should get every dollar for every choice.”

The House has projected the cost to expand vouchers and establish universal education savings accounts at $210 million. It’s a number critics have suggested does not take into account all students who might take advantage of the offer.

Critics pegged the price tag as being in the billions, factoring in thousands of students who attend private schools without state support and could accept the offer to pay all or part of their tuition.

“House Bill 1 is not a fiscally responsible bill,” Florida Policy Institute senior analyst Norín Dollard told the subcommittee, calling on lawmakers to identify a regular funding source to pay for every potentially eligible student without taking away from traditional public school budgets.

The Legislature has not determined a cost per student yet, but last year it averaged close to $8,000.

Related: Estimates vary widely on cost to expand school vouchers in Florida

Even as the bills move quickly, the two chambers do not yet have identical language in their bills required to get them out of the Legislature and to the governor’s desk.

House Republican leaders have worked to bring along as many Democrats as possible in crafting their proposal. The Education Committee accepted amendments this week from Rep. Susan Valdés, D-Tampa, and Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Pompano Beach, with chairperson Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican, thanking them for helping to get the bill “across the finish line together.”

Those additions include ensuring that students from families that earn 400% of the federal poverty level or less get priority for the funding, although the measure does not set a cap on the number of vouchers available. A family of four at 400% of the federal poverty level earns $120,000, according to the government’s guidelines.

The amendments also would require the Department of Education to create an online portal aimed at helping parents find information about private schools that accept vouchers, and mandate that private schools inform parents that they are not protected by the federal Individuals With Disabilities Act for special services that public schools would guarantee.

House leaders rejected other amendments to require that private schools provide those services. They also turned away proposals that would have required private schools that accept vouchers to provide accountability measures such as having students take the same state tests as public schools offer, or hire state certified teachers.

Rep. Christopher Benjamin, the ranking Democrat on the Education Quality subcommittee, said the absence of such provisions was one of his key concerns.

“Most people don’t have an issue with choice. What they have an issue with is, it isn’t an even playing field,” Benjamin, D-Miami Gardens, said Friday, calling for factual transparency that allows parents to make well-informed decisions about what option is best for their children.

Williams, the ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, said Wednesday that she appreciated the efforts to address some of the deficiencies she and others saw in the bill. But she worried the proposal would take money away from the public education system, which serves the vast majority of Florida school children, in order to give it to a private system.

She gave a nod to several parents who complained that they could not avail themselves of the choices the vouchers are supposed to offer, because many private schools cost more than the voucher amount and often do not have the services their children require.

“I am old enough to remember segregation,” Williams said, “and this is what it looks like to me.”

Massullo, the chairperson, argued that the bill aims to serve a public good by looking past systems and institutions to provide school options that meet peoples’ real needs.

“We see it as those individuals, those young children with individual aptitudes, with parents who know what’s best for them,” he said. “That’s the public good. That’s our goal.”

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