TALLAHASSEE – House Speaker Paul Renner threw his support Thursday behind a mespansure that would make most Florida families eligible for privspante school vouchers – a move that further enflamed the fight over the future of public educspantion in the state.
Renner showcased the broad outline of the newly filed legislation, which is numbered HB 1, a sign that it is a top priority for the Palm Coast Republican. The Legislature begins its regular session in March, with Renner’s goal to have the voucher expansion ready for the upcoming school year.
“Today we empower parents and children to decide the education that best fits their need,” Renner said, while acknowledging the price tag on the legislation was still not clear.
But House Democrats warned the proposal would rock the state’s public education system, attended by 2.8 million children. Giving parents the chance to send their child to participating private schools with the state dollars attached to the student, will undermine many districts, they warned.
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“We’re not just funding one educational system, we’re funding two,” Rep. Felicia Robinson, D-Miami Gardens, a 28-year educator, said of the expansion.
Florida has been enhancing school choice options for the past 25 years, but the House’s push for what supporters dub universal choice represents the breaking of a last barrier. No longer would families have to qualify according to income eligibility requirements or have children with special needs to use state dollars to attend private schools.
What the private school voucher bill would do
The legislation also would end a more than 9,000-student waiting list for special needs children seeking private school scholarships. And it would allow home-school parents to receive state dollars under the scholarship program, although that would be capped at the first 10,000 students into the program.
Renner described the legislation as providing “customizable” school choice for parents and students.
“I think it’s clear to us that nobody, absolutely nobody knows the abilities and needs of their child better than a parent,” said Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, a sponsor of the legislation. “HB 1 will empower every parent to be able to choose the customized and tailored education system that fits best for their students.”
Democrats, however, found a host of flaws in the approach. Private schools that receive state voucher dollars don’t have to meet the same testing, teacher certification and accountability standards as public schools, they pointed out.
Family income, not a factor to qualify for Florida school vouchers
The legislation would eliminate most eligibility standards for the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarships, which now are limited to families earning at or below 375% of the federal poverty level.
But under the bill, even families of four with incomes topping that level of $104,063 per year would be eligible for state scholarships of between $7,250 to $7,850 per child. Continuing under the proposal would be the state requirement that families earning less than 185% of poverty, or $51,338 for a family of four, be prioritized in gaining the private school vouchers.
Florida’s more than two-decade history of steering students to private schools using state dollars also is littered with examples of schools closed because of financial or academic improprieties.
Many voucher students also return to public schools, dissatisfied by the private schools participating in state programs, Democrats said.
“Our public school system in this country truly is the great equalizer,” said House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa. “But my Republican colleagues clearly do not believe that it should continue to be.”