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Florida school vouchers can pay for TVs, kayaks and theme parks. Is that OK?

A new list of allowable expenses for the publicly funded program is raising eyebrows.
 
Guidelines allow Florida families receiving school vouchers to buy items like theme park visits, paddleboards and TVs with leftover money in their state education accounts.
Guidelines allow Florida families receiving school vouchers to buy items like theme park visits, paddleboards and TVs with leftover money in their state education accounts. [ AP; Jefferee Woo | Times ]
Published Sept. 1, 2023|Updated Sept. 1, 2023

As Florida lawmakers expanded eligibility for school vouchers this year, they also gave parents more ways to spend the money.

Theme park passes, 55-inch TVs, and stand-up paddleboards are among the approved items that recipients can buy to use at home. The purchases can be made by parents who home-school their children or send them to private schools, if any voucher money remains after paying tuition and fees.

The items appear in a list of authorized expenses in a 13-page purchasing guide published this summer by Step Up For Students, the scholarship funding organization that manages the bulk of Florida’s vouchers. Many of the items are similar to what was permitted for vouchers to students with disabilities in the past, but now they’re available to anyone who receives an award of about $8,000.

The list quickly raised eyebrows as it circulated.

“If we saw school districts spending money like that, we would be outraged,” said Damaris Allen, executive director of Families for Strong Public Schools, who recently started speaking out publicly on the issue. “We want to be conservative with our tax dollars. We want to be sure it is being used for worthwhile things.”

Damaris Allen
Damaris Allen [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

By comparison, Allen and others noted, teachers who want some of the same items for their classrooms would have to pay out of pocket or turn to other fundraising sources such as GoFundMe because schools won’t pay for them.

Conversations among parents in online discussion groups have sparked added concern.

Participants inquired about the possibility of vouchers paying for tickets for fan fests and conventions. They discussed whether they could get a television and a projector, or just one of those. They shared sample wording to submit for requests to get theme park passes paid for — something that was prohibited a year ago.

“Every child in Florida deserves an enriching, quality education,” said Holly Bullard, chief strategy officer for Florida Policy Institute, which has raised repeated concerns about the potential cost of voucher expansion. “But is it fair to students in our public schools, whose teachers often pay out of their own pockets for classroom supplies, that taxpayer dollars are being spent on Disney passes and big-screen TVs for voucher families?”

Supporters of the expansion don’t consider the program as wasting taxpayer money. They see it as allowing families to customize education according to their children’s interests.

“We need to stop thinking like it’s 1960 — that the only answer is four walls with traditional districts leading the charge,” Jeanne Allen, founder of the national Center for Education Reform, said in an email.

“To engage young people today, we need to do a lot more than just have them show up,” she said. “They expect 21st century approaches to learning and recreational opportunities for their physical and mental well-being.”

Jeanne Allen
Jeanne Allen [ Courtesy of Center for Education Reform ]

In 2021-22, the latest year for which figures were available, families receiving vouchers for students with disabilities spent $1.2 million on televisions. The purchases required pre-authorization, according to Step Up For Students.

They also spent $43,374 on treadmills at home, which also required pre-authorization; $30,436 on indoor trampolines and $226,584 on game consoles.

In total, the organization reported distributing $51 million for instructional materials that year, with the largest expenses being test preparation ($26.7 million), computers ($8 million) and iPads ($3.4 million). The amounts are expected to grow along with the expansion of the program, which has nearly doubled in size to more than 425,000 students after HB 1 became law on July 1.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs HB 1, a bill to expand school vouchers across Florida, during a news conference at Christopher Columbus High on March 27 in Miami.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signs HB 1, a bill to expand school vouchers across Florida, during a news conference at Christopher Columbus High on March 27 in Miami. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | AP ]

With the new purchasing guide in place, parents who have children with severe medical needs worried that limited resources would go toward items that families should be paying for themselves, while critical services and equipment might become underfunded.

“Taxpayer dollars going to PlayStations when they could go to students with significant needs, that’s fleecing the taxpayer,” said Abby Skipper, a longtime Polk County special education advocate and parent.

Students with special needs have a longer list of eligible expenses that are not available to students with economic opportunity scholarships. Some of those items include digital devices such as game consoles and computers, assistive technology and sensory material, such as specialized swings and chairs.

Many other authorized expenses — including field trips to places such as museums and theme parks, physical education equipment like kayaks, classroom furnishings and coursework — are common to both types.

A Step Up spokesperson noted that the scholarship pays for the student’s admission only and sets a limit of one per school year up to $299. A Busch Gardens silver annual pass with no blackout dates costs $213. Disney World annual passes start at $399. Florida resident tickets cost $109 per day.

State senators who voted for the program trust parents to make “appropriate and responsible decisions” when using the funds Florida is dedicating to their children’s education, said Katie Betta, spokesperson for the Senate Majority Office.

“The parents we hear from don’t see the scholarship as a windfall or a means to splurge on big screen TVs and video game consoles,” Betta said via email. “To the contrary, the parents we hear from appreciate the opportunity to use any funds left after tuition is paid to cover the cost of books, therapies and other educational expenses that would be covered if the child was in a public school.”

House Speaker Paul Renner agreed with the goal of giving families flexibility, and indicated lawmakers are open to reviewing the program as needed. House members aim to get the most out of public spending, he said, and are “continually improving how we deliver education so that every child can achieve their full potential.”

Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up For Students, said the group’s guidelines, written with parent input, have two primary criteria.

“First, we look at the products and services that are available in district and charter schools,” Tuthill said via email. “Second, we look at the unique learning needs of each child.”

Creating a customized education can explain the rationale behind paying for items that some question, he added.

For instance, large-screen televisions might aid students with visual impairments. Paddleboards, one of several items allowed for physical education, can offer balance training for students who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

Step Up previously did not approve theme park passes, but reconsidered after hearing from parents about the potential benefits, Tuthill said. A student with severe developmental disabilities might better focus when stimulated by the sights and sounds, for example, or a home-school family may incorporate “all the different history and culture lessons available at Disney World,” such as art and music festivals.

Several school district officials from across Florida said if their students take field trips to theme parks, parents or community sponsors cover the cost.

These types of conversations are taking place across the nation as education savings accounts gain popularity, said Derrell Bradford, president of the national education reform group 50Can. From his perspective, the accounts help close the gap for families that have no flexibility in their school choices or enrichment opportunities.

Pages from new guidelines detail how Florida families can spend school voucher money left over after a child’s private school tuition and fees have been paid. Allowable Items, which are supposed to have educational uses, include televisions, kayaks and individual trampolines.
Pages from new guidelines detail how Florida families can spend school voucher money left over after a child’s private school tuition and fees have been paid. Allowable Items, which are supposed to have educational uses, include televisions, kayaks and individual trampolines. [ SEAN KRISTOFF-JONES | Times ]

This new model gives parents money and choices, limiting the centrally managed system, Bradford said. Looking at the ways the money can be spent shouldn’t be a simple yes or no, Bradford added. The key concern ought to be what items will best help children learn, he said.

“The question we need to ask is, do you want to let the paradigm of schooling that we know already be the reference point? Or do you want to let something else emerge?” Bradford said.

Florida has clear purchasing rules, with laws against fraud, said Allen, the Center for Education Reform founder. She argued that the expansion of allowable expenses lets families choose “very different kinds of education environments for their children.”

Some Florida activists raised concerns that the state could run into problems like Arizona faced, when its auditor general found education savings accounts being misspent on unauthorized items. Polk County school board member Lisa Miller, who has used vouchers for her nonverbal son, said Florida’s program was ripe for abuse even when it was more limited. She noted that many funding requests came around the winter holidays for items such as Legos and Xboxes.

“Our public school system would not be able to operate like this,” Miller said.

Florida has greater spending controls in place than Arizona did.

Jenny Clark, a member of the Arizona State Board of Education who also runs a group that helps families navigate voucher uses, said, from her perspective, concerns about the timing and type of purchases focus on the wrong thing.

Jenny Clark
Jenny Clark [ Jenny Clark | Twitter ]

The “great experiment of education freedom and school choice” will succeed only if states design programs that provide “extreme flexibility” in using the accounts to meet children’s needs in a world where many jobs they’ll hold don’t yet exist, said Clark, a mom of five. She offered 3-D printers as an example, saying schools didn’t have them five years ago, and today they’re commonly considered necessary for some studies.

“We’ve got to do the most innovative things,” Clark said. “And the most innovative things make people uncomfortable.”

Florida state Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, said she understands both sides of the argument. She’s also a special education parent advocate, whose son used a McKay Scholarship to support his schooling.

Tant said she’s hearing from some parents that the voucher amount doesn’t approach the tuition cost of many private schools, if seats are available. At the same time, she said, she hears the complaints that if state funding is limited, recipients who home-school or have small tuition expenses should not be using the money for what might seem to be extras.

Rep. Alison Tant
Rep. Alison Tant [ Florida House of Representatives ]

“It never occurred to me that those kinds of items would be included,” Tant said, noting that when her son wanted to play video games, he bought his own Xbox.

She did not support HB 1, but said she expected the money would go toward expenses with clear educational value.

“We’ve got to have some checks and balances in there,” Tant said. “I think every Floridian, especially those who are struggling financially, is not going to want their tax dollars spent on things that aren’t educationally relevant. I don’t know if they want to send kids to Busch Gardens on a multiday field trip.”

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