Florida Senate boosts school money amid voucher fight

Senate Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland
Senate Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland (News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Senate released a budget proposal Tuesday that would boost a key part of education spending by $1.1 billion next year, amid a fierce debate about whether to expand school vouchers.

The budget proposal, outlined by Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would translate to a 4.71 percent increase per student during the 2019-2020 year, or about $350. That would be substantially higher than Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget proposal, which called for an increase of $224 a student.

The proposed increase would be in the Florida Education Finance Program, a critical formula used in parceling out money to schools throughout the state. The proposal is only an initial version and could change substantially as the Senate and House negotiate a final budget before the scheduled May 3 end of the legislative session.

House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is Stargel’s counterpart, is expected to outline a House budget proposal Wednesday.

The release of the Senate proposal also came as Stargel’s panel approved a controversial bill (SB 7070) that would expand school vouchers in the state --- an issue that has long been tangled in debates about education funding. The Education Appropriations Subcommittee passed the measure in a 5-3 vote along party lines.

Part of the bill would create a new voucher program, dubbed the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, that could provide vouchers to pay for as many as 15,000 students a year to attend private schools. Money for the new vouchers would come from the Florida Education Finance Program, better known as the FEFP, and total as much as $110 million next year.

Families could qualify for the voucher program if their incomes do not exceed 260 percent of the federal poverty level, or $66,950 for a family of four. A House proposal to create such a program would be broader, applying to families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $77,250 for a family of four.

A parade of educators, parents and advocates spoke to the Senate panel Tuesday on both sides of the voucher debate and other issues in the bill, including an overhaul of the state’s Best and Brightest teacher bonus program. Critics of the bill said lawmakers should focus on spending money to increase teacher salaries.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat who represents parts of Miami-Dade County, said low pay prevents teachers from living in many parts of his district. He also questioned the message being sent with voucher-type programs as students leave struggling public schools to go to private schools.

“What are we saying to the public-school kids who are left in the public schools that other families are racing to get out of?” he asked.

But Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said school-choice programs are about “freedom” as families decide where children will be educated.

“The empowerment of people making choices about their own life is tremendous,” Baxley said. “And I have seen so many changed lives when you empower them with the choice.”

Stargel also said the proposed increase in the education budget would provide $600 million that school districts would have the flexibility to use for raising teacher salaries.

“It’s a monumental shift from what we have done in the past,” Stargel said after the meeting.