Florida House backs school voucher expansion

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In the latest chapter in a two-decade debate about school choice in Florida, the House on Monday overwhelmingly approved a plan that would expand school vouchers.

The bill (HB 7067), sponsored by House Education Chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, includes a change that could lead to nearly 29,000 more students receiving vouchers next year through the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship program.

The measure will go to the Senate, where a similar bill (SB 1220) has been approved by committees.

Debate about the House bill reflected deep divisions that have surrounded vouchers since former Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican lawmakers began a major school-choice push after Bush took office in 1999.

Sullivan and other supporters of the bill pointed, in part, to allowing parents to make education choices that they think are best for their children.

“We are expanding opportunities for parents who do not have the fiscal resources to choose a private school, to choose that too,” Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, said. “This is the type of innovation that leads to better outcomes for all children, no matter where they grow up and no matter how much money they have.”

But critics said lawmakers should focus on providing adequate funding to public schools.

“It’s quite problematic for us to continue to expand the voucher structure, when we have left behind traditional public schools for far too long,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said.

While the bill would make a series of changes, a key part would allow a 28,902-student expansion of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which started last year.

Lawmakers capped enrollment at 18,000 students for the 2019-2020 school year, with 17,724 vouchers funded as of Feb. 1, according to a House analysis. But last year’s law also built in a formula designed to lead to expansions of the program in subsequent years.

That formula called for increasing the number of students in the program annually by an amount equal to 0.25 percent of the overall enrollment of public schools -- a potential increase of 7,225 vouchers during the 2020-2021 school year, according to the House analysis.

But the bill approved Monday would change that formula to lead to an increase equal to 1 percent of the overall enrollment of public schools. That would translate into an estimated 28,902 additional vouchers during the 2020-2021 year, the analysis said.

The House voted 81-39 to approve the bill, with all Republicans supporting it. The bill also drew support from eight Democrats: James Bush of Miami, Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville, Mike Grieco of Miami Beach, Al Jacquet of Riviera Beach, Wengay Newton of St. Petersburg, Anika Omphroy of Lauderdale Lakes, Susan Valdes of Tampa and Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes.

“It’s an honorable thing to empower parents and give parents an opportunity to be able to put their children in places where it is safe, where it is conducive for teaching and learning,” Bush said.

But most Democrats dissented, as they have for the past two decades.

“We have another step in the direction toward a universal voucher program,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said.

About the Authors:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.