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Florida’s wide-ranging school voucher bill ready for Senate vote

The 158-page bill would change how the state funds school vouchers in the budget. It would create a whole new funding formula for them and would change the way families can use public funds for schooling outside traditional school districts.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby speaks during Opening Day at the Capitol Tuesday, March 2, 2021 in Tallahassee, Fla.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby speaks during Opening Day at the Capitol Tuesday, March 2, 2021 in Tallahassee, Fla. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Mar. 4
Updated Mar. 5

TALLAHASSEE — Legislation that would create publicly funded educational savings accounts to help families pay for private tuition and other expenses sailed through its final Florida Senate committee stop Thursday, reigniting a perennial debate over school choice.

“School choice is here to stay,” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said minutes after the wide-ranging measure, Senate Bill 48, passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, could be heard by the full Senate as early as next week.

Simpson, who has made the issue a top Senate priority, has cast the bill as a simple measure focused on “streamlining” the state’s five key school choice programs. He said the changes would make it less confusing for parents to access and would benefit over 100,000 families who currently utilize from the programs.

But the proposal does so much more.

Most notably, the 158-page bill would change how the state funds school vouchers in the budget. It would create a whole new funding formula for them and would change the way families can use public funds for schooling outside traditional school districts. That includes private tuition, tutoring, laptops and other costs.

“Parents are the best advocates for their children, and now more than ever parents are seeking freedom from a one-size-fits-all system to look for resources and tools to uniquely tailor learning for their child’s individual needs,” Diaz said after the bill advanced on Thursday.

$7,400 in education savings accounts

Families who dip into educational savings accounts would have spending authority over roughly $7,400, Diaz said. The amount would vary by county, and would be based on the current state per-student funding level, he said.

As the Republican majority fast-tracks the measure, Democrats increasingly are concerned about how the new funding mechanisms might impact traditional public schools long-term.

State economists on Wednesday estimated taxpayers could be contributing about $6.6 billion toward school vouchers by the fifth year of implementation.

“If we infused our public schools with the money we’ve given to voucher schools, we could ensure every child gets the best public education possible,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville. “It’s our duty to make sure everyone gets the best education possible… not choosing winners and losers.”

Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, had similar concerns during Thursday’s committee meeting.

“The way we are calculating this, I think, is doing a great disservice to our public schools,” he said. “It really is an unfair taking of money from our public schools and giving it to private schools.”

Democrats’ amendments fail

During the two-hour meeting, Democrats tried to rein in the proposal with a series of amendments that sought to scale back enrollment numbers for the programs and restrict income eligibility. But all attempts were defeated by the Republican majority.

“We just don’t know what the fiscal impact of this is going to be,” Farmer said.

Despite these concerns, the Senate panel approved the measure along party lines after making some changes of its own. One big difference was the creation of a state trust fund that will collect corporate donations and state funds that will pay for the school voucher programs.

While the Senate proposal has sped through the chamber, there is still no companion bill in the House. That is not much of a concern for Diaz, who said he expects one to be filed soon.

“They haven’t rolled theirs out,” Diaz said in an interview. “But they’ve said they are going to roll out a bill. We just haven’t seen it yet.”

House Education & Employment Committee Chairman Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, will likely sponsor the companion bill, Diaz said. Latvala couldn’t be reached for comment.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch school choice proponent, has not indicated whether he would support the Senate’s school choice plan. His $96.6 billion proposed 2021-22 state budget — which is advisory only — does not take the new proposed funding formula into account.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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