WLRN 91.3 FM | by Ryan Dailey/News Service of Florida | February 3, 2021
TALLAHASSEE — Florida could see another expansion of school-voucher programs, under a sweeping proposal advanced by a Senate panel on Wednesday.
The measure (SB 48), filed by Republican Sen. Manny Diaz of Hialeah, would expand eligibility for school-voucher programs and allow parents to use taxpayer-backed education savings accounts for private schools and other costs.
The Senate Education Committee approved the proposal (SB 48) in a 6-4 party-line vote Wednesday, with Republicans overriding Democrats’ fiery objections to the plan.
“What evidence is there that these programs will be effective and efficient uses of our taxpayer dollars?” Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, asked Diaz during the committee meeting.
Diaz argued that the state’s existing scholarship programs have produced observable student progress and that participating schools have done well. He insisted that his bill would not change accountability standards used by participating private schools.
“The real story behind this bill is the consolidation, the streamlining and to make it easier for the parents to access the program, and the flexibility that’s provided under the ESA (education savings accounts),” Diaz told reporters following Wednesday’s committee meeting.
Under the Senate plan, the state would fold all existing voucher programs into two main scholarships, with one serving students with special needs and the other directed at “traditional” students.
For mainstream students, the measure would expand the existing Family Empowerment Scholarship, which currently serves middle- and low-income students, in part by combining it with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Under the Tax Credit Scholarship program, businesses receive tax credits for contributing money to nonprofit organizations that, in turn, provide scholarships to students to attend private schools.
The Senate proposal also would establish the “Gardiner-McKay Scholarship,” by combining two existing voucher programs that serve students with special needs. Participation in the program initially would be capped at 50,000 students and would be allowed to grow by up to 7 percent each year.
“The eligibility requirements for the different scholarships still function. However, they are consolidated and streamlined. Parents can choose the avenue to enter the program,” Diaz said during Wednesday’s committee meeting.
In what would be a significant expansion of eligibility, the proposal also would allow students who have never been enrolled in public schools to receive vouchers, a change from rules currently in place. The provision received immediate backing from Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.
“A low-income family who thinks a private school is the best fit for a child should not have to first send that child to a public school. This comprehensive school choice legislation enables children to start out in the school their parents think is best,” Simpson said in a prepared statement.
In another significant change to current rules, the bill would increase the amount of funding students receive to pay for private-school tuition. Currently under the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, eligible students receive 95 percent of public-school per-student funding for private-school vouchers. Diaz’s proposal to expand the program would award 97.5 percent of public-school per-student funding to voucher recipients.
But Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, criticized the practice of steering money meant for public schools to private institutions.
Diaz’s plan represents a “death knell to public education,” he said.
“Had we pumped the type of money that we’ve been putting into these programs into the public-school system, I can tell you I would have a better outcome from the students in my district,” Thurston argued.
The proposal also would establish what are known as education savings accounts for eligible students, something that is currently only available to recipients of Gardiner scholarships for students with special needs. The accounts could be used for a wide array of education-related costs and services, including private-school tuition, tutoring, digital devices, and internet access.
Under Diaz’s proposal, the funds for students with special needs could be spent on a more expansive list of approved uses, including specialized therapies.
“We’ve been doing this successfully for quite a few years,” Diaz said.
Diaz’s plan also would remove a current prohibition in state law preventing funds intended for teacher salary increases from being used for voucher programs. Democrats tried to strip that provision from the bill, in an amendment that failed to gain support.
Removing the prohibition would create a scenario in which public-school teachers’ raises would be shared “with those under no obligation to use the services of teachers at all,” Berman said.
The issue is “a conversation for the appropriations process,” Diaz told her.
Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, said that, under Diaz’s proposal, money for teacher pay raises would instead be used for private-school vouchers.
“The answer is yes. If last year was the ‘year of the teacher’ it looks like this year will be the ‘year to abandon teachers,’” Spar tweeted during Wednesday’s meeting.
A House companion bill has not been filed yet, but House Education Committee Vice-chairman Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, told The News Service of Florida that he expects one will be coming soon.
“There’s not a doubt that the Florida House has been supportive of school choice, so that’s not going to change,” Latvala said last week.
The Senate proposal now is headed to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.