Florida Senate OKs private school voucher expansion. Bill heads to DeSantis.

Senators adopted the House version of the bill, but the chambers still disagree on how to pay for it.
Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, left, asks questions about a bill to expand private school vouchers, addressing bill sponsor Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, right. The lawmakers were working on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, left, asks questions about a bill to expand private school vouchers, addressing bill sponsor Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, right. The lawmakers were working on the Senate floor Wednesday. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published March 23|Updated March 23

A plan to offer every K-12 school-aged child in Florida a voucher or education savings account regardless of family income is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis for final consideration.

The state Senate agreed Thursday to send the measure to the governor with its adoption of House Bill 1 along party lines. House Speaker Paul Renner, who made the bill a session priority, sat in the Senate chamber through the entire debate.

Democrats led the charge against the measure. They raised concerns about issues including cost and accountability measures for schools and families accepting vouchers, which allow public money to be spent on private education expenses. They noted the state does not have academic performance requirements for voucher recipients, nor does it have curriculum or teacher credential requirements for their teachers.

“This is about privatizing education in the state of Florida, pure and simple,” said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando. “No accountability, no transparency.”

They called on colleagues to meet their constitutional requirement to provide a high-quality system of free public education, suggesting the voucher would be a rebate for families already paying for private education.

“We want to make sure we’re providing true choice to all parents no matter what their socioeconomic level is,” said Sen. Rosalind Osgood, D-Tamarac, adding that many parents could not afford private school even with a voucher.

Bill sponsor Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, made an impassioned plea for the measure on behalf of Republican leaders.

“Parents deserve an opportunity to put their kids in the best place they can find,” Simon said.

He pushed back against criticism that the measure pits private against public education, noting that the legislation requires a review of ways to remove regulations from the public schools while also increasing total funding to record dollar amounts.

“We are funding our public schools,” Simon said. “We are funding students in this state.”

Related: Major voucher expansion passes in Florida House; bill still rolling through Senate

Though the chambers agreed on voucher policy, they so far do not share the same vision when it comes to paying for what is expected to be a landmark expansion of the program.

Senate Education Appropriations chairperson Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, introduced a budget plan this week that would set aside about $800 million in new funding for the program, with another $350 million in reserves “in case our estimates are off.”

The Senate projected serving 244,000 children with vouchers, which lawmakers are calling “family empowerment scholarships.” The money could be used for private school tuition or a variety of other educational programs, such as tutoring, home school materials and college courses.

The total budgeted for the program would be $2.2 billion, an increase made possible by rising property values in Florida.

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“None of this comes out of” the state’s regular funding for public schools, Perry said. “This is totally separate.”

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

The House did not favor that approach, instead proposing an overhaul of the entire funding formula in its budget plan.

House PreK-12 Appropriations chairperson Rep. Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City, recommended collapsing several of the “categorical” funds that support specific expenses, such as book purchases, into the base funding system. Her budget would pay for about 204,000 vouchers.

The requirements behind the funding would remain in place, but the plan would give school districts more flexibility in spending it, Tomkow explained.

Her plan also would eliminate caps on the numbers of students who can get maximum funding for special education and language learning needs. In addition, it would revise the formula that accounts for differences in costs across the state.

Rather than provide a line item total for vouchers like the Senate did, the House budget would establish a county-by-county voucher amount, averaging $8,707 per student statewide. That’s about $500 more per student than this year.

The House would set aside $109 million in reserves for the program.

Bruce Baker, chairperson of the University of Miami Teaching and Learning Department, is a national expert on school finance. He said the House proposal appears similar to one that moved through Tennessee.

“Really, the goal is to increase the amount of money that will go with a kid to a private school,” he said.

He added that collapsing “categorical” funding into the general fund can have benefits, so long as the adjusted formula is based on the needs and costs of helping students achieve the state’s academic standards.

“The primary goal isn’t just to take whatever money we have and make it flow better,” Baker said.

He raised further concerns that Florida’s overall education funding has remained flat compared to student needs, and inadequate for high-needs students. He doubted whether the House proposal would change that.

The reviews were mixed from other interested groups.

Representatives from the Miami-Dade and Glades county school districts praised the House proposal as a game changer. Representatives from the Florida Education Association and Florida Policy Institute said they preferred the Senate version as more transparent and realistic.

“The record budgets presented for K-12 education are significantly buoyed by the swelling property values and the subsequent increase in local property taxes collected for schools. This will not always be the case,” said Holly Bullard, Florida Policy Institute chief strategy and development officer. “The committees should build a firewall between school district budgets and the budget for vouchers” so the funding for each remains clear and accountable.”

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