TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers on Thursday reached a deal on a sweeping $200 million proposal that would combine and significantly expand the state’s voucher programs that help families pay for private schooling.
After months of negotiations, House and Senate leaders agreed on legislation that would pave the way for about 61,000 new students to qualify for taxpayer-funded vouchers, a push that Democrats fought as they advocated for more oversight and accountability for private schools that will be getting state-funded vouchers.
Republican leaders in both chambers, however, have been steadfast on their decades-long push to expand school choice in Florida and on Thursday agreed on legislation that would make a series of changes to the state’s school-choice infrastructure.
If signed into law, the legislation would fold voucher programs for students with special needs — the Gardiner Scholarship and the John M. McKay Scholarship — into the Family Empowerment Scholarship, the state’s newest voucher program that serves a broader population of low- to middle-income families.
The measure would also raise the income eligibility cap. It would allow families of four with an income of nearly $100,000 to qualify for Family Empowerment awards, up from the current $79,500 income threshold. And students would no longer need to attend a public school before receiving a state voucher, the bill says.
Furthermore, the bill would allow Family Empowerment vouchers to be spent on additional educational expenses, including technology and Internet services, on top of private school tuition. Students with special needs who receive vouchers could spend the money on even more expenses, including specialized therapies, which is currently allowed for Gardiner Scholarship recipients.
Those provisions are part of the compromise lawmakers reached on the big-ticket education item. The resolution came after the Senate agreed to take up the House bill, a version that is poised to pass the Senate as early as Friday.
By taking up the House bill, the Senate is curtailing the plan it initially proposed at the start of the legislative session.
Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who sponsored the Senate bill, had proposed what many advocates consider to be the holy grail in the school-choice movement: education savings accounts for students.
His proposal would have merged the state’s five key school voucher programs, make them all state-funded, and convert them into educational savings accounts that families could use to pay for private tutoring, therapy, private schooling and even college savings.
But the massive undertaking fizzled, largely due to key differences in the funding.
For the Senate’s proposal to work, the Legislature needed to create a trust fund to collect corporate donations and state funds to pay for vouchers. The House did not want to go that far.
• • •
Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news from the state’s legislative session. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.