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Major school vouchers bill moves forward in Florida Senate

Lockers in a St. Johns County school
Lockers in a St. Johns County school (WJXT)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A sweeping Senate proposal to consolidate Florida’s school-voucher programs and establish them as flexible spending accounts for students continued advancing Wednesday.

The measure (SB 48), sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, was approved by the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee in a 6-3, party-line vote.

Diaz’s proposal would expand eligibility for voucher programs and allow parents to use taxpayer-backed education savings accounts for private schools and other costs.

Also, the plan would fold existing voucher programs into two main scholarships, with one serving students with special needs and the other directed at the broader population of students.

Diaz faced questions from Democrats about how the education savings accounts would function.

He said one current program serving students with special needs, known as the Gardiner Scholarship Program, already has been using the accounts successfully.

In what would be a significant expansion of eligibility, the bill also would allow students who have never been enrolled in public schools to receive vouchers, a change from rules currently in place.

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, argued Diaz’s proposal would steer taxpayer money away from traditional public schools.

“Ninety percent of our students attend public schools, and we see school districts that are reeling from the increased economic burden of this (COVID-19) pandemic. The expansion of these education savings accounts as a backdoor to funnel these public dollars into private schools, in my opinion, is inexcusable,” Cruz said.

The Senate Education Committee also approved Diaz’s bill this month, and the measure needs approval from the Appropriations Committee before it can go to the full Senate.

House Education & Employment Chairman Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, has said he expects a House version of the bill to be filed.

The annual legislative session will start March 2.