Florida lawmakers consider whether to expand school voucher system

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – According to state data, 75% of Florida students are eligible for a school voucher, while only 6% utilize them.

But if lawmakers approve a measure (SB 202) under consideration this legislative session, every Florida student would be eligible for state-backed vouchers.

The current system allows vouchers to be used for private school tuition through three scholarship programs: the Florida Tax Credit, the Family Empowerment Scholarship, and the Hope Scholarship Program. These vouchers do not cover the full cost of tuition.

Currently, families are only eligible for a voucher if they make less than $104,000 a year. The proposed expansion of the school voucher program would remove this limit, giving priority to low-income students.

The expansion would make every school-aged child in the state eligible for a private school scholarship, or another type of funding for education-related expenses, like tutoring and instructional materials, which would also allow homeschooled students to receive a voucher.

If the bill passes, Florida would become the third state in the country to offer universal school choice.

Democrats questioned the elimination of income-eligibility rules and argued the measure would harm traditional public schools.

Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boca Raton, asked whether a family earning $500,000 a year would be eligible for vouchers.

“Well, the short answer is yes. Because we’re not funding parents, we’re funding students. That’s what this bill is,” said committee Chairman Corey Simon, a Tallahassee Republican who is sponsoring the measure.

In addition to expanding voucher eligibility, the proposal would essentially create what are known as education savings accounts, or ESAs. The flexible-spending accounts could be used for purchases such as tutoring services, instructional materials and contracted services provided by public schools.

The measure also would allow families of home-schooled students to receive vouchers, with a limit of 10,000 home-schooled recipients next school year. That number would increase by 20,000 in each subsequent year.

Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, has supported the measure in committee but questioned whether families of home-schooled students should be allowed to receive the same voucher funding as students whose families would use the money for private-school tuition.

“I think that the potential for abuse rises significantly with the dollar amount and keeping a child at home,” Grall said.

Grall also suggested changes that she said would address concerns related to “being accountable to the taxpayer” and to parents. Grall proposed that information about participating private schools could be posted online. Such information could include whether the schools are accredited, whether they serve students with particular disabilities and the curriculums used by the schools.

Responding to Grall’s comments, Simon told The News Service of Florida after the meeting that he is open to potential changes.

“I think her concerns are very valid, and we’ll sit down and continue to pick apart this bill on ways we can make it better,” Simon said.

The financial impact of the proposed changes has not been determined, Simon told reporters.

While the vast majority of discussion in committee centered on vouchers, the bill also would direct the State Board of Education to recommend to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature ways to “reduce regulation on public schools.”

Those recommendations would be due before the 2024 legislative session.

The bill drew support from several parents of students who receive Family Empowerment Scholarship vouchers for students with disabilities. Those scholarships allow families to make a range of purchases similar to education savings accounts.

But some critics expressed concerns about a potential erosion of traditional public schools. Cathy Boehme, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Education Association teachers union, called for “fiscal responsibility.”

“When we fund private-school students who have never been to public school, it will come out of public-school dollars. So, let’s make sure we get the math right on the estimations so that we do no harm to any of our students,” Boehme told senators.

Bill Montford, a Democratic former state senator who is CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, spoke in support of the measure on behalf of the organization. Montford said superintendents “are not afraid of competition.”

“Right now, 85% of our parents choose public schools. With this, we think it will increase, quite frankly. It will give us a level playing field,” Montford said.

A similar House measure (HB 1) is also under consideration.

About the Authors:

This native of the Big Apple joined the News4Jax team in July 2021.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter with experience in print and radio, having covered state and local news in Tallahassee since 2014. A graduate of Florida State University, Dailey has been a resident of the capital city since 2012. He joined the News Service of Florida in 2021, reporting with a focus on education and education policy.