Florida lawmakers look at ‘education savings accounts’

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. (News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With the 2021 legislative session set to begin next week, Florida lawmakers could further broaden the state’s school-choice landscape with what are called “education savings accounts.”

Lawmakers are considering a far-reaching proposal (SB 48) that would expand eligibility for voucher programs and allow parents to use taxpayer-backed education savings accounts for private schools and other costs.

The plan, sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, would also 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. Both would involve the use of education savings accounts, giving parents flexible spending power with 97.5 percent of the current state per-student funding level, or roughly $7,600.

“The streamlining part of the bill and the consolidation is to facilitate ... parents to be able to access the scholarships, an easier-to-use one-stop shop, and be able to be clear because the current system has various scholarships that have different and varied eligibility requirements,” Diaz said during a meeting of the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee last week.

The panel advanced the measure on a 6-3, party-line vote, after it was approved by the Senate Education Committee last month. It needs approval from the Appropriations Committee before it can go to the full Senate. The House has not started moving forward on the issue, but it has strongly supported voucher programs in the past.

“We’re huge believers in school choice in the Florida House,” Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, told reporters last week. “You certainly will see a continuation of choice policy. We’re looking at the various proposals that have been offered by the Senate to see what seems to make sense and continue to evaluate it through the committee process.”

Diaz’s measure would allow parents to spend the education savings account money on private school tuition, but also digital devices like iPads and internet access, as well as hiring tutors or on specialized therapies.

One existing voucher program, the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with special needs, has allowed parents to use flexible spending accounts for the better part of the last decade. Diaz has repeatedly argued that experience shows the state can handle providing such accounts on a much-larger scale.

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