TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers on Monday moved toward temporarily nixing a cap on the number of students who can participate in a school voucher program for children with disabilities.
The Senate Fiscal Policy Committee and the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved identical measures (SB 4C and HB 3C) aimed at allowing more students to receive the state-backed vouchers amid high demand. The full House is expected to pass its version Tuesday, with the full Senate taking up the issue Wednesday.
Senate sponsor Jay Collins, R-Tampa, said 8,839 students are waiting to receive vouchers in what is known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities program.
“This bill, focused narrowly on what we’re trying to accomplish, ensures that we don’t leave anybody behind,” Collins said.
Participation in the program was capped at roughly 41,000 students for this school year. Under the proposals, the participation cap for this year would be eliminated. The state Department of Education and what are known as scholarship funding organizations — nonprofits that administer vouchers for the state — would determine how many vouchers are available.
After this school year, the program would return to using a formula for determining maximum capacity. That formula involves the overall number of “exceptional student education” students.
“Beginning with the 2024-2025 school year, the maximum number of students (in the voucher program) will increase annually by three percent of the exceptional student education full-time equivalent student membership, not including gifted students,” a Senate staff analysis of the proposal said.
The program provides money that families can use for private school tuition or on a range of other purchases, such as tutoring services and instructional materials. Proponents of the scholarships have touted them as allowing families to customize students’ educations.
The average scholarship in the program for students with disabilities was $9,700 during the past school year, about $2,000 more than the state’s largest voucher program for the broader population of students, according to the Senate staff analysis. However, Step Up for Students, an organization that administers the vouchers, said on its website that the average Unique Abilities program scholarship is $9,900.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and Collins noted Monday that people seeking vouchers through the program in the current year would have until Dec. 15 to apply.
Republican sponsors said a $350 million pot of money in this year’s state budget is expected to cover the cost of eliminating the waiting list and funding additional vouchers.
Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, questioned Collins about how much of that money could be used with the changes.
“How much of the $350 million appropriated for the educational stabilization program (the part of the budget) will be used to modify the Family Empowerment Scholarship program?” Jones asked.
Collins said the amount is not expected to be a “huge portion” of that money.
“Every situation is unique. It’s going to be really hard to tell what those final numbers are, but it will be well within those margins,” Collins said.
House sponsor Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City, similarly said that the $350 million would be “more than sufficient” to cover the additional vouchers.
As lawmakers address the issue during a special legislative session this week, operators of schools that participate in the program raised another concern Monday.
Some operators have reported receiving late and partial payments from the state, making it difficult to continue providing services.
Collins said that as of Sunday, 96% of invoices from schools had been processed “and were being worked on.”
Mary Josephine Walsh, founder of the group Florida Coalition for Private Schools, cast doubt on that number. Walsh said she also owns a nonprofit school for children with autism. She called the payment problems a “pressing issue that needs to have light revealed.”
“In order to maintain payroll and operations, I have had to take out several high-interest loans. I have maxed out my personal credit cards. I have not been able to pay my home mortgage or the school’s mortgage in two months. And I also have not taken a paycheck in the past eight weeks to ensure that my staff gets paid. My situation is not isolated,” Walsh told senators.
By Ryan Dailey, News Service of Florida