Massive school voucher program headed to Gov. DeSantis’ desk; questions remain about costs

Nearly all Florida families may soon be able to send their K-12 children to private schools with taxpayer money, even if their household incomes exceed millions or billions of dollars — an expansive effort that critics say could drain the state’s public school system for years to come.

The Legislature pushed through the bill, HB 1, in rapid fashion, with the House earlier approving the measure just last week. Thursday, the Senate approved the bill in a 26-12 vote, largely on party lines with two Republican senators absent for the vote.

The next stop is the governor’s desk, for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ consideration.

DeSantis proclaims that he is for so-called “school choice” and supports state-funded school vouchers, also called “scholarships,” but he has previously expressed skepticism over whether to include wealthy families in the program.

Now, it’s time for DeSantis to decide on the matter.

But the bill covers a wide variety of issues involving both school vouchers and public-school regulations. The Florida Constitution says that, in the exception for a budget appropriation bill, a governor’s veto applies to a whole bill and can’t veto parts of the legislation he may not agree with.

There has been a long debate about allowing students to attend private school through taxpayer dollars — GOP lawmakers have typically approved voucher expansions, while Democrats usually don’t.

House Speaker Paul Renner, who pushed the initiative even before the start of the March 7 session, sat in the Senate chamber throughout the entire debate, watching the voucher discussion.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is a vocal supporter for vouchers, issued the following written statement Thursday:

“Florida has created the most expansive parental choice program in the country – one that boldly prioritizes millions of students over outdated systems, unlocks options for all families, ends the frustration of waitlists and empowers parents to make decisions based on their child’s unique learning needs, regardless of their income or zip code.”

HB 1 allows all Florida K-12 students to be eligible for the state’s two main voucher programs — the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

Under the bill, families with a student benefiting from these two state scholarships would receive an “education savings account.”

The education savings account would allow parents to “take dollars the State of Florida has appropriated for their child in the public education system and choose among a variety of options to customize their child’s education,” according to a press release from the Senate shortly after senators approved HB 1.

Parents would have a fund of about $8,500 per child, according to current budget proposals, to put towards a variety of expenses, including private school tuition, instructional materials, tutoring services or fees for nationally standardized exams.

Conservative advocacy groups like the Heritage Action for America claim that education savings accounts provide families with “the resources and flexibility they need for their children to succeed academically,” according to a written statement Thursday.

The school voucher expansion bill also includes other provisions that impact Florida’s public schools.

HB 1 would expand the timeframe of a temporary teaching certificate from three years to five and would remove a graduation requirement that forced students to take an online class during their time in high school, as well as other measures.

The bill also requires the state Board of Education to evaluate and offer revisions or repeals to the current education law in Florida and provide recommendations to the governor and the Florida Legislature in 2024.

Money troubles

One of the largest criticisms on the school voucher expansion is exactly how much the proposal will cost in state funds and whether public school districts will feel the impact.

“My Democratic colleagues would not have one problem, if this bill was $650 million or $6 billion, if it was all going to the public school. They wouldn’t have a problem with the cost,” Sen. Corey Simon, who carried the bill in the Senate, told lawmakers. He represents several counties in North Florida.

“But what they have a problem with is the choice of a parent. That’s what they have the problem with,” Simon said to senators Thursday.

The Senate has carved out some $2.2 billion dollars in “scholarship” funding for the 2023-24 school year in their proposed state budget, which is an increase of about $802.3 million from the current fiscal year of 2022-23. There’s an additional $350 million earmarked to help fund additional scholarship awards if the $2.2 billion is not enough to cover the scholarships.

But the Florida Policy Institute, a non-profit economic research organization, estimate that the costs to fund HB 1 could be as high as $4 billion. The FPI is urging DeSantis to veto the bill, according to a Thursday press release.

“As each chamber rolls out their education budgets, one thing is clear: the significant and growing projected cost of universal vouchers under HB 1 poses a threat to school districts’ budgets for the foreseeable future. At the very least, budget committee chairs are listening to the concerns of experts and the public on fiscal projections — both chambers proposed reserves for the program in case their estimates were too low,” FPI said in a written statement.

The Florida Education Association, a statewide teacher union, argues that the money needed to fund the state vouchers would be better spent addressing the needs of Florida’s public schools.

“HB 1 will siphon billions away from the schools where nearly 90 percent of Florida’s students learn and grow,” according to a Thursday statement. “This bill will leave children with fewer resources in their already underfunded classrooms and fewer teachers and staff to meet their needs. Sending tax dollars to unaccountable, corporate-run private schools is just wrong.”

This article originally appeared in florida phoenix

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