With the stroke of a pen Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis made it possible for every school-age child in Florida to get a taxpayer-funded education voucher or savings account.
His signature on HB 1, which passed its final legislative stop Thursday, creates one of the nation’s largest school choice programs. Already, about 1.3 million children receive their education from someplace other than their assigned public school, DeSantis noted. That includes private schools, home education and charter schools, as well as the largest segment — school district programs like magnets.
“This expands school choice to every single student in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at the bill signing at Christopher Columbus High School, a private, all-boys Catholic school in Miami.
The measure takes effect on July 1. Here’s what it means for Florida families:
What will a voucher be good for?
First things first. Students cannot receive or use a voucher or a savings account while attending a public school.
Their share will be the amount their school district gets in per-student funding, projected to be about $8,700 on average.
This program is for families that choose some other form of education. They can use the money for tuition at a private school, including religious ones; tuition and fees at an eligible postsecondary institution; and fees for testing, including Advanced Placement and industry certification exams.
The money also can go toward instructional materials, curriculum, tutoring and counseling, and contracted services from a public school.
Beyond that, the program offers added special services for students with unique abilities, such as speech language pathology and occupational therapy.
The money will go directly to families, however the law requires them to pay for tuition first if attending a private school. If any money is left, they can use the funds on other approved expenses.
If they don’t need all the money immediately, families will be able to bank up to $24,000 of the funds and spend it until the time the scholarship expires. That happens when a student enrolls in public school, graduates high school or turns 21 years old, if the state revokes the scholarship for misuse or there is no activity on the account for two years.
The upshot, said Senate sponsor Corey Simon, a Tallahassee Republican, is a “transformational opportunity to make it clear that the money follows the child, and parents have a right to guide their child’s education as they see fit.”
What about homeschooling?
The proposal initially set aside thousands of vouchers for homeschool students. But homeschool advocates argued against being included because they didn’t want to be subject to added state regulations over their education choices.
In response, the Legislature created a new category called the “personalized education program.”
It’s essentially the same thing as homeschooling, but with the acceptance of the voucher and the related strings attached to the funding. Those include meeting state attendance requirements and submitting an annual customized student learning plan to the scholarship funding organization.
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Homeschool families that do not accept a voucher can continue as they always have.
According to Danny Aqua, executive director of Teach Florida, a nonpublic school and parent advocacy organization, about 20,000 homeschooled students will be eligible for an education savings account next year.
Will it cover all my costs?
This has been a concern raised by several parents who testified before the Legislature about the bill. They suggested that the voucher amount of about $8,700 per student does not offer them enough to pay for their choices — if the school they prefer will even accept them.
“The vouchers go a part of the way,” said Thomas Kruczek, president of Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, where DeSantis signed the bill. This year, tuition at the all-boys Catholic private school is $15,400. “But we also provide quite a bit of tuition scholarships to our students as well. Usually about a million and a half dollars every year in scholarships, so that will help support it.”
If families need more, the school also has the Caring Hearts Fund, a donation-based fund that offsets traditional financial aid for students. The school doesn’t offer any merit-based scholarships, only need-based, he said.
Many schools that accept vouchers are in a similar situation.
In Hillsborough County, for instance, tuition at Carrollwood Day School starts at $17,750 a year for kindergarten and reaches $27,000 for high school grades. In Pinellas County, the popular but less expensive Keswick Christian starts at $10,275 for kindergarten and rises to $13,800 for juniors and seniors.
Hillsborough School Board chairperson Nadia Combs said she worried that “low-income families will never be able to afford that private school.” The outcome, suggested Jacksonville Democrat Sen. Tracie Davis, could be a rebate for wealthy families that already were paying full tuition.
Erika Donalds, an avid school choice proponent and wife of Republican Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples, predicted there will be more options available as demand increases.
“You’ll see schools whose tuition is $15,000 or maybe more than that, but you’re also going to see schools operating at an affordable price for families,” she said. “And you know, $7,000 above the scholarship is much more affordable than the full $15,000 families are having to contend with right now, so it definitely opens up options for many more families.”
Can I pick whatever school I want?
Not necessarily. At the news conference, DeSantis said the voucher could be used at any school that qualifies and meets the basic standards set by the state.
But according to Aqua, of Teach Florida, that’s about 80% of schools.
To become a participant in the program, the school has to apply. It’s a process that typically takes between nine months and two years, Aqua said.
The requirements include demonstrating “fiscal soundness” by operating for at least three school years or filing a surety bond or letter of credit to the Department of Education. Schools must employ or contract teachers “who hold a baccalaureate or higher degree, or have at least three years of teaching experience in public or private schools,” according to the department.
Another concern arose from bill opponents that private schools may turn away applicants. They can have enrollment limits that public schools may not, and also can reject students they do not see as meeting their objectives.
The bill sponsors rejected proposed amendments that would prohibit schools from discriminating against students over factors such as sexual identity or hairstyle. Instead, they agreed to include a requirement that participating schools put information into a statewide online portal to help parents decide if they’re a good fit.
Simon, the Senate sponsor, has said the goal is not to make private schools act as public ones because that would negate the concept of offering a variety of choices.
How do I get mine?
To use the money for a full-time private school, parents must select that private school and apply for admission. As part of that process, they’re supposed to meet with school officials to review all applicable policies, expectations, programs and other aspects that might influence their choice.
They also need to apply to one of the scholarship funding organizations that will administer the program, Step Up for Students and AAA Scholarship Foundation.
Those groups will accept applications and determine student eligibility. They also are charged with monitoring compliance with the applicable expenses.
Lawmakers have said their goal is to have enough vouchers so wait lists no longer exist. At the same time, senators said during the final debate that the “educational opportunity” vouchers will be funded until the money runs out, with top priority going to families at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, with those between 185% and 400% next.
For a family of four, that translates to families that earn between $55,500 and $120,000 a year.
Vouchers for students with unique abilities and personalized education programs will be limited, with the caps eventually disappearing.
The chambers have yet to work out how the state will pay for the expansion.
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