TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A House panel on Thursday threw bipartisan support behind a leadership-backed bill that would expand the number of students who can use taxpayer-funded scholarships to attend private schools.
The measure (PCB EDC 20-01), unanimously approved by the House Education Committee, would restructure the eligibility requirements of Florida’s voucher programs, which serve students from low-income and working-class families, kids with special needs and bullied children.
One of the biggest proposed changes seeks to significantly expand the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which was created by the Legislature last year at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The program has served 18,000 students in its first year, meeting its enrollment cap. House Education Chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said the bill would allow 10,000 more students to be served under the program.
“My hope is that parents are empowered and not bound by their ZIP code on where to send their kids to school, but rather can make the best choice for them,” Sullivan said.
DeSantis said last year the Family Empowerment Scholarship program was needed to address the unmet demands of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, the state’s largest voucher program.
After seeing the popularity of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, House leaders are looking to not only increase enrollment but to make eligibility changes.
For instance, it would remove a requirement about students enrolling in public schools before becoming eligible for the scholarships -- a change that Sullivan said would benefit first- and second-grade students.
“Why wouldn’t we want to do this and make it more available?” said Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto. “It is a fact that students today as a whole are doing much better than they have in the past, and I believe it is because of choice.”
Although school choice bills tend to get pushback from Democrats, those who serve on the Education Committee all voted in favor of the proposal Thursday.
But some Democrats raised concerns about a disparity in accountability measures between traditional public schools and private schools that get state scholarship money.
Rep. Delores Hogan Johnson, D-Fort Pierce, said she worries the state is stripping money from public schools while requiring little accountability for private schools.
“It’s like a warfare going on,” she said. “But I would like to see public education be given the opportunity to grow along with these choice schools because I know that students, for whatever reason, come out of these schools of choice and go back into public education.”
One change in the bill would reduce the frequency of state audits of non-profit organizations that administer voucher programs for the state.
The bill says the Florida auditor general must audit the organizations at least once every three years, instead of every year.
State audits have shed light on some issues with how one of the non-profit organizations, Step Up for Students, put at risk scholarships of hundreds of students.
A report released last September found that Step Up failed to properly check applicants’ household-income eligibility for the Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
Auditors also said 583 students with special needs who were eligible for awards under the Gardiner Scholarship Program saw a delay in funding due to a “processing error” involving enrollment documentation. The error was fixed, auditors said.
Sullivan said the proposal to revise the frequency of audits came at the request of the auditor general.
In other parts of the bill, the House would increase a household-income threshold for students seeking Florida Tax Credit scholarships.
Under the proposal, students could be eligible for the program if their household incomes do not exceed 260 percent of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four would be roughly $70,000 a year. That would be up from the current threshold of 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is $47,638
The Hope Scholarship program, which is designed to serve children who have been bullied in public schools, would also see some changes. House leaders want to mandate an annual review of bullying-prevention programs in public schools from which 10 or more students have decided to transfer with Hope scholarships.
Sullivan said Thursday the bill will be the only school-choice measure moving in the House during the 2020 legislative session, saying the focus will be on other parts of the education system.