TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday approved a controversial omnibus package that seeks to bring sweeping changes to the education system, particularly with a school-choice expansion.
After testimony from teachers and parents, the proposal (SPB 7070) passed its first hurdle in the Senate on a 5-3 vote. All Democrats voted against it, largely opposing part of the bill that would create a new taxpayer-funded scholarship program for low-income students to attend private and religious schools.
Under the proposal, the state would create a voucher program, called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, to alleviate a nearly 13,000-student waiting list for the longstanding Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.
“This bill brings us out of the 19th century and allows parents to really provide the direction for each child,” Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said before the panel approved the measure.
Other Republicans on the committee agreed with Diaz, saying the new voucher program would provide opportunities for low-income students. They also hammered a point that the state should not force children into a one-size-fits-all education system.
“Our duty is to educate the children. Our duty is not to dictate where they are educated. It is the fact that we are providing the resources for those children to be educated,” Diaz said.
Critics, however, argue that private schools and charter schools are not held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools and that vouchers are sold under the expectation that parents can make the best educational choices.
The education package includes myriad provisions, drawing criticism from members of the public who argued the bill has too many issues and should be broken into several bills.
Other provisions include a proposal to remove struggling traditional public schools from receiving funds from the Hope Scholarship Program, which helps bullied children, and a proposal to overhaul a teacher bonus program that has drawn criticism in recent years.
Democrats have wanted changes in the “Best and Brightest” bonus program, in part because it has taken into account teachers’ scores on the ACT and SAT college-entrance exams in determining who is eligible for bonuses. But more broadly, Democrats argue that the state should increase money for teacher salaries instead of awarding bonuses.
“Teacher bonuses are not enough to carry this bill. Instructional professionals need to be paid a base salary,” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said. “It needs to be a base salary that is at least at the national average, and honestly, anything less than that is disrespectful to Floridians who dedicate their lives to teaching.”
The Senate proposal would remove teacher scores on the SAT and ACT from being considered in awarding bonuses. Instead, money would be awarded to teachers rated as “highly effective” and teaching in schools that have demonstrated academic improvement.
The state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, called the proposal “another bonus scheme.”
Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, also questioned whether the Senate’s proposed new voucher program would be deemed unconstitutional if signed into law. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court tossed out a voucher program that directly used state funding to send children to private schools.
But Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, tried to counter Berman’s argument.
“Our court system, our Florida Supreme Court, has made it real clear that our parents have the right as to how to educate their children,” Simmons, an attorney, said. “A state may not intrude in a parents’ fundamental right to raise their children the way they see fit, except in cases when the child is threatened with harm.”
Diaz said he doesn’t anticipate a lawsuit on the proposal. But even if it would be challenged, three recent appointments by Gov. Ron DeSantis have made the Supreme Court more conservative than in the past, which could benefit issues Republicans are pushing during this year’s legislative session.
The premise of the Senate proposal mirrors what DeSantis and the Florida House are backing for a school-choice expansion.
Over the past couple of months, DeSantis has rolled out a number of education priorities. Rep. Chris Latvala, the House’s top budget writer for the K-12 education system, told The News Service of Florida that the chamber will unveil its approach in a couple of weeks to tackling the long waiting list for the Tax Credit Scholarship program.
“We’ll have some ideas, some that we will share with the Senate and the governor,” Latvala, R-Clearwater, said. “We share the same goal of serving the kids that are on the waitlist.”