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Florida House tees up voucher expansion

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida House is ready to approve a bill that would more than double the enrollment cap of the state’s newest school voucher program.

The bill, which the House on Friday prepared for final passage, would boost the Family Empowerment Scholarship program.

The program, created last year, provided vouchers to nearly 18,000 students to attend private schools this year.

The proposed changes to the program would create a new formula that would lead to an annual increase equal to 1% of the overall enrollment of public schools, or an estimated 28,902 additional vouchers during the 2020-2021 school year, according to a House staff analysis of the measure.

The House on Friday stripped a provision from the measure that would have reduced the number of audits the state conducts on nonprofit organizations that distribute state-funded vouchers, from once per year to at least once every three years.

Most of Friday’s debate about the proposal (HB 7067) came during three unsuccessful attempts to add language that would prevent anti-LGBTQ discrimination at private schools that accept state-funded vouchers.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, proposed a provision that would have required private schools to disclose their admission policies to parents and students prior to enrollment.

Smith’s amendment would also have required a study into potential discrimination cases at private schools and banned private schools from employing anti-LGBTQ admission policies.

“School choice is meaningless when the school that otherwise is the best school for your child is a school that says we don’t take your kind,” Smith, who is openly gay, argued.

The Republican-dominated House swatted each of Smith’s amendments.

Smith’s efforts came in the wake of an Orlando Sentinel investigation that found 83 religious schools that accept school vouchers for low-income students have policies that explicitly bar gay students from enrolling. Another 73 schools teach students material that says being gay or transgender is a sin, the Sentinel’s investigation found.

The House could vote on the measure as soon as Monday.