New school choice package raising alarms among Florida Democrats

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Lawmakers are looking to consolidate and streamline its five private school voucher programs into two, hoping to make it easier for parents to opt-in.

The 158-page bill also makes changes to how the scholarships are funded, which has Democrats concerned.

It’s become an annual affair at the State Capitol.

Lawmakers heard from students and parents who have benefited from the state’s private school scholarship programs Wednesday, as they considered this year’s school choice bill.

“At West Park Prep, I don’t have to fight anymore,” said Hallandale Beach student Marquavious Wilson.

They also heard testimony from those who oppose the vouchers.

“Vouchers operate in the dark without public accountability,” said Reverend Dr. Russell Meyer with the Florida Council of Churches.

This year’s legislation aims to streamline the state’s five voucher programs into two.

“The real story behind this bill is the consolidation, the streamlining, and to make it easier for the parents to access the program,” said Senate sponsor Manny Diaz.

What gives Democrats pause, is that both private school scholarships would be funded through the main pot of money for public schools.

Senator Diaz said the various corporate and opt-in tax revenue sources for the scholarships will continue to cover costs.

“The most important thing is we’re funding students and we’re funding them where they’re being served. We’re funding students, not schools,” said Diaz.

But Senator Perry Thurston is worried if those revenues fail to keep up with the growing pool of scholarship recipients, the new funding structure would make it easier to divert money meant for public schools to private schools.

“Do you really think that this Legislature, who’ve increased vouchers every opportunity they have, is not gonna fund those vouchers? They’re going to fund it. That’s when you see the decline in public education,” said Thurston.

Between the five existing scholarships, nearly 185,000 students received school choice vouchers last year, costing taxpayers well over a billion dollars.

The bill also raises the amount of money students receiving scholarships would receive, from 95 to 97.5% of what the state spends on the average public school student.

Until the Legislature sets per-student funding for this upcoming year, it’s not clear how much overall spending on private school vouchers will rise.