Voucher expansion on the move in Florida House

By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In a priority for Republican leaders, the House on Thursday began moving forward with a dramatic expansion of school vouchers, including allowing middle-class families to apply for state-funded scholarships to send children to private schools.

The GOP-controlled House and Senate and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis all want to expand voucher-type programs and point to a waiting list of about 14,000 students in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves low-income children.

But the voucher proposals that have emerged from the House, Senate and DeSantis’ office vary on details such as student eligibility and will have to be negotiated before the scheduled May end of the annual legislative session.

The House Education Committee on Thursday approved a bill (PCB EDC 19-01) that would create a new voucher program, known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which would be open to many middle-class families.

If approved, the program would be available to families whose incomes are up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level during the 2019-2020 school year --- a calculation that equates to $77,250 for a family of four. The threshold would gradually increase, with a family of four making $96,572 eligible for the vouchers in the 2022-2023 school year.

Rep. James Bush, a Miami Democrat who supports school choice, said he is worried the House is moving away from the goal of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which was to help low-income children attend private schools.

“My only concern is keeping the original intent of helping low-income children,” Bush said.

By comparison, the Senate proposal (SB 7070) would create a program that would provide vouchers to families up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level --- the equivalent of $66,950 for a family of four.

Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and Senate Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said they think that’s a better approach.

“In the real world, depending on where you live, if you look at a family of four and say they make $96,000, it sounds like a lot. But sometimes it is deceiving,” Diaz told The News Service of Florida. “But I do believe that our position is more in line with the intent of addressing the need of those who would benefit from the Tax Credit Scholarship program.”

Diaz, however, was careful about calling the House’s household income threshold a middle-class family.

“We all know the truth,” Diaz said. “They are working class, obviously.”

Vouchers have long been a controversial issue in the Legislature, with supporters saying private-school scholarships offer needed choices to families and opponents saying they strip money from traditional public schools.

On Thursday, Republicans on the House Education Committee lauded Chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, for her “bravery” in spearheading the effort on the contested issue. Other GOP members got emotional during debate, sharing personal experiences.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said he is able to pay tens of thousands of dollars every year for his children’s tuition but added that he wants the bill because not every parent can do so.

“It is a crime that not every parent has the same choice than I do,” he added.

A teary-eyed Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, said the school choice issue is the reason he got into public office.

“Parents, we are going to be here for you because they are your children, they are not the state’s children and they are not the school district’s children,” Donalds said.

If the House proposal is signed into law, the Family Empowerment Scholarship program would create about 28,000 scholarships for the 2019-20 school year. Sullivan said the bill also would eliminate the waiting list in the Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves about 100,000 students.

But the Florida Democratic Party blasted the proposal, in part raising questions about whether it would be constitutional to use tax dollars for the new program. The state Supreme Court in 2006 struck down a voucher program backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“House Republicans are abusing the legislative process to rush this bill through because they know it would never hold up under sustained scrutiny,” Democratic Party spokesman Kevin Donohoe said in a prepared statement.

 

News Service Executive Editor Jim Saunders contributed to this report.

News Service of Florida