MIAMI – Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a bill that will bring a massive expansion to the state’s school choice program.
DeSantis signed House Bill 1 at a Miami high school and called it the biggest expansion of the program in the state’s history.
The new law will, among other changes, make every Florida student eligible for taxpayer-financed vouchers to attend private schools worth about $8,000 dollars.
“Now, primarily there will be a preference for low- and middle-income families but at the end of the day we fundamentally believe the money should follow the student and be directed on what the parent thinks is the most appropriate education program for their child,” DeSantis said.
Critics say the bill could create a mass exodus from public schools and give more state money to charter and private schools that aren’t held to the same accountability standards.
“The universal voucher bill signed today by Gov. DeSantis will drain billions of taxpayer dollars away from the neighborhood public schools that nearly 90 percent of Florida’s parents trust to educate their children,” said the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, in a statement. “Additionally, this new law will hand over that public money to unaccountable, corporate-run private schools. Average Floridians will be helping pay for millionaires and billionaires to send their kids to elite private schools that hand-select their students. Once again, we see Gov. DeSantis putting his political ambitions ahead of Floridians, including our students. We are deeply concerned that children will pay the ultimate price for the governor’s politics.”
DeSantis addressed those concerns on Monday with two arguments.
“One is the amount of scholarship money is less than what would go per pupil for public anyways,” he said. “Second, since I’ve been governor, we’ve raised the amount of funding to our public schools every year. I mean, the idea that they’ve been starved, that theoretically could happen, that’s a choice that legislators and a governor would make, and I push to have more funding for the school districts. And we’re actually going to do for public school teachers, the biggest teacher pay increase we’ve ever done.”
DeSantis said right now there are 1.3 million students enrolled in some kind of choice program.
Under the new tiered priority system, students whose household incomes are around $51,000 for a family of four would get first priority.
Estimates put the total cost of the program between $200 and $700 million.
The bill also is designed to allow home-schooled students to receive vouchers and will create what are known as “education savings accounts” that allow recipients to use voucher funds for purchases beyond private-school tuition. For example, the funds could be used on tutoring expenses and fees for various exams.
Democrats have argued the bill will have a grave financial impact on traditional public schools.
House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, told reporters Monday the bill creates “two systems,” characterizing vouchers as “coupons that we’re giving to millionaires.”
“I’m personally concerned, and I think many in our caucus share this sentiment, that this could be devastating to Florida’s public schools,” Driskell said.
With DeSantis widely expected to run for president in 2024, Driskell also pointed to the quick pace of the Legislature passing major priorities of the governor and Republican legislative leaders.
“Our suspicion is that he wants to get as many of his priorities out of the way so that they will already be passed, and perhaps he can even sign them into law before he makes his announcement and actually files to run for president,” Driskell said.
The bill also eliminates the current enrollment cap and the exemptions to the maximum number of students who can participate in FES-EO. For students who are not full-time enrolled in public or private school or who are not Home Education Program students, there will be a cap of 20,000 new scholarships for the 2023-2024 school year and a cap of 40,000 new scholarships for every year after that.
Additionally, this legislation requires the Office of K-12 School Choice to develop an online portal that enables parents to choose the best educational options for their students. The bill also eliminates the restrictive requirement that students must complete at least one credit through a virtual course to graduate.
Finally, to make the teaching profession more accessible, the bill allows the general education requirement to be waived for teachers who have had three years in the classroom if they have been rated ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’ for three consecutive years. The bill also expands the length of a temporary teaching certificate from three years to five years.
It also requires the State Board of Education to recommend additional repeals and revisions to the education code.
The new law will take effect on July 1.