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School choice bill advances in Florida Senate with a promise of changes to come

NewsSchool choice bill advances in Florida Senate with a promise of changes to come

Freshman Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, drew a capacity crowd to a Senate hearing Tuesday when he introduced a proposal to make privspante school vouchers available to all Florida students. 

SB 202 supporters, including parents with children who have disabilities and Americans for Prosperity, cspanll the idespan trspannsformspantionspanl, while classroom teachers and groups like Leon County Guardians for Public Schools warned universal vouchers could bspannkrupt the public educspantion system

School choice is high on the ruling Republican agenda for the 2023 legislative session, and Simon reworked a House proposal to expand eligibility for Florida’s three taxpayer-financed scholarships for private schools. 

His proposal would make the scholarships available to all Florida residents in pre-K through 12th grade, including part-time students and those who have never attended a public school, while also providing money for transportation. 

“Choice is here. That’s what we’re talking about. Public school isn’t for every student,” said Simon. 

A freshman Senator, Simon tackles the education establishment with a proposal for universal eligibility for state-backed school vouchers

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He explained he wanted to give parents the opportunity to put their kids in schools that are the best fit for them, just like his mother did for him, and he and his wife did for their son. 

“The dollars will follow the students,” explained Simon, adding that he also wants to repeal regulations on public schools so they can better compete for students. 

Florida school choice options today

Florida provides more than $1.6 billion annually, about 10% of the PreK-12 budget, in education savings accounts. The money is for students to attend private schools and is distributed through three scholarship programs:  

  • The Family Empowerment Scholarship, for low- and middle-income students. The FES also includes two education savings accounts for students with unique abilities and a new world scholarship program 
  • The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship – a tax deduction for businesses in exchange for contributions to the scholarship program 
  • Hope Scholarship – for students who have been bullied or harassed. 

Simon would not only expand eligibility but also allow the money to be used to pay for: 

  • Digital materials and Internet 
  • Part-time enrollment 
  • Fees for standardized tests 
  • Fees for part-time tutoring by a person  
  • Establishes a cap of $24,000 in FES scholarship account 
  • Establishes a cap of $50,000 for a FES student with disabilities scholarship account

And home schoolers would be eligible for the scholarships if they take an annual standardized test and meet with a “school choice navigator” about their education. 

Debate over school choice expansion

Democrats peppered Simon for more than 45 minutes with a series of 25 questions. Sen. Lori Berman, D-Palm Beach, grilled him about whether he included accreditation requirements for private schools to be eligible for voucher payments, or their teachers to be certified. 

Sen Lori Berman led a tag team of three Democrats in peppering Simon with questions for more than 45 minutes.

Simon said no. 

“Part of the reason on what we’re doing with this bill is deregulation. A lot of our public schools are struggling with that very same issue of having accredited certified teachers,” said Simon about a teacher shortage in Florida.  

Sen. Sherman Jones, D-Fort Lauderdale, submitted a late-file amendment to recoup voucher money from private schools that close during a school year, leaving students with no school or money, but withdrew it. 

He thanked Simon for discussing the idea over the weekend and said he will refile it later in the process.  

Sen. Jones filed a handwritten amendment to claw back funds from private schools who accept state backed vouchers and then close down. He withdrew the amendment and said he will refile it later in the process.

Sen. Rosilind Osgood, D-Tamarac, who has a doctoral in public administration and whose children attended public, private and charter schools said she was awestruck by the misleading language the bill supporters were using. 

Osgood said the bill provides “choice to the private school,” but not to the parent because private schools “pick and choose” their students. 

Furthermore, said Osgood, the current scholarship amount of $7,700 often does not cover all expenses – tuition, fees and transportation, and will filter out lower income students. 

“It’s not true competition. It’s not a true choice if we don’t accommodate for gaps in income level,” said Osgood.  

Sen. Erin Grall, R- Vero Beach, homeschooled her children and objected to the provisions imposing new regulations on the home-schooling community. Grall supported the bill, however, and indicated she intends to offer amendments while the bill moves to the Senate floor. 

Sen. Erin Grall home schools her children. She wonders about what increased regulations on the home school community will look like and pledged to work with Simon on the proposal

“So that we’re not interfering with what has traditionally work in terms of requirements,” said Grall.

Public divided over expansion

Members of the public who spoke were divided into three factions with 17 supporters, 16 opponents, and seven who liked some portion of the bill but expressed concerns about other aspects of it.  

Almost all of the supporters were parents of children with special needs who testified how the FES has been life-changing for their children. 

Most opponents worried about what will happen to the public school budget if hundreds of thousands of parents suddenly claimed a FES scholarship. The FES has grown from $105 million in 2018 to $820 million in 2022 and is projected to be at $4 billion in the first year if SB 202 is approved, according to a study by the Educspantion Lspanw Center School spannd the Florida Policy Institute.  

“Neighborhood public schools will have to close and tuition at many private schools is out of reach for families. There is no obligation for private schools to accept all students or to provide them with the services they need,” said Denise Howard of Leon County Guardians for Public Schools. 

Ray McKinney, a retired science teacher from Lakeland who endorsed Simon’s efforts to review and repeal some of the rules, said while public schools are over-regulated, he also thinks private schools are under-regulated, especially with teacher certification. 

“I would hope that we do not lower requirements for public school teachers to the level of private schools, but rather we elevate and balance the requirements for teaching in public and private schools,” said McKinney. 

What’s next 

The committee approved the measure on a party-line vote of 9 –3, and afterwards Simon said to expect some changes to the proposal. 

SB 202’s next committee hearing will be held by the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. 

Its companion measure HB 1 has cleared one committee and will be heard in the House PreK-12 Committee Thursday. 

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