DeSantis signs school voucher expansion into law — what it will mean to families, schools
Miami Herald | By Sommer Brugal and Jeffrey S. Solochek | March 27, 2023
With the stroke of a pen Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis made it possible for every school-aged child in Florida to get a taxpayer-funded education voucher or savings account.
His signature on HB1, which passed its final legislative stop on Thursday, creates one of the nation’s largest school choice programs. Already, about 1.3 million children receive their education from someplace other than their assigned public school, DeSantis noted. That includes private schools, home education and charter schools, as well as the largest segment — school district programs like magnet schools.
“This expands school choice to every single student in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at the bill signing at Christopher Columbus High School, a private, all-boys Catholic school in Miami, at 3000 SW 87th Ave. in Miami-Dade. He was surrounded by House and Senate leaders who made the measure a priority.
“That empowers parents … to find the best school for their child,” the governor said.
The Senate approved HB1 along party lines, replacing its own version of the measure with the House language. While the two chambers agreed on the policy of granting vouchers or education savings accounts to all K-12 school-aged children regardless of family income, they have yet to agree on how much the expanded program will cost or how to pay for it.
CONCERN OVER PUBLIC SCHOOL FUNDING
The bill has generated strong criticism from Floridians who contend the initiative will hurt an underfunded public education system without having many of the accountability requirements that traditional public schools must meet.
In a statement Monday, Florida Policy Institute CEO Sadaf Knight asserted the governor “approved a program that will reroute billions in education funding from public education to unaccountable private schools,” at a time when K-12 schools are already “severely” underfunded.
“By opening up the floodgates of funding to private education, including by giving vouchers to the wealthiest families in the state, HB1 presents a significant long-term risk to the funding for our public schools, which currently educate 87 percent of K-12 students in Florida,” the statement from the Orlando nonprofit said.
When asked about that risk, DeSantis at the news conference argued funding for public schools has increased since he’s been governor.
Supporters, however, have maintained that families know best what their children need for schooling, and that the state should help parents pay for their choices. They say it encapsulates a years-long effort to give families more educational choices.
The measure takes effect on July 1. Here’s what it means for Florida families:
WHAT WILL A VOUCHER BE GOOD FOR?
First things first. Students cannot receive or use a voucher or a savings account while attending a public school.
Their share will be the amount their school district gets in per-student funding.
This program is for families that choose some other form of education.They can use the money for tuition at a private school, including religious ones, tuition and fees at an eligible post-secondary institution, and fees for testing including Advanced Placement and industry certification exams.
The money also can go toward instructional materials, curriculum, tutoring and counseling, and contracted services from a public school.
Beyond that, the program offers added special services for students with unique abilities, such as speech language pathology and occupational therapy. The law increases the number of vouchers for students with extra academic needs, to eliminate a wait list that has existed in past years.
The law requires families to pay for tuition first, if attending a private school. If any money is left, they can use the funds on other approved expenses.
If they don’t need all the money immediately, families will be able to bank up to $24,000 of the funds and spend it until the time the scholarship expires. That happens when a student enrolls in public school, graduates high school or turns 21 years old, if the state revokes the scholarship for misuse or there is no activity on the account for two years. March Madness From Selection Sunday to the championship game — sign up to get March Madness coverage directly in your inbox. SIGN UP
The upshot, said Senate sponsor Corey Simon, a Tallahassee Republican, is a “transformational opportunity to make it clear that the money follows the child, and parents have a right to guide their child’s education as they see fit.”
WHAT ABOUT HOMESCHOOLING?
The proposal initially set aside thousands of vouchers for homeschool students. But homeschool advocates argued against being included, for fear of falling victim to added state regulations over their education choices.
In response, the Legislature created a new category called the “personalized education program.”
It’s essentially the same thing as homeschooling, but with the acceptance of the voucher and the related strings attached to the funding. Those include meeting state attendance requirements and submitting an annual customized student learning plan to the scholarship funding organization.
Homeschool families that do not accept a voucher can continue as they always have.
According to Danny Aqua, executive director of Teach Florida, a nonpublic school and parent advocacy organization, about 20,000 homeschooled students will be eligible for an education savings account next year.
WILL IT COVER ALL MY COSTS?
This has been a concern raised by several parents who testified before the Legislature about the bill. They suggested that the voucher amount, which is projected to average about $8,700 per student, does not offer them enough to pay for their choices — if the school they prefer will even accept them.
“The vouchers go a part of the way,” Christopher Columbus High School President Thomas Kruczek said. This year, tuition at the school is $15,400. “But we also provide quite a bit of tuition scholarships to our students as well, usually about a million and a half dollars every year in scholarships so that will help support it.”
If families need more, the school also has the Caring Hearts Fund, a donation-based fund that offsets traditional financial aid for students. The school doesn’t offer any merit-based scholarships, only need-based, he said.
Currently, the number of students using state scholarships, which include the McKay and Family Empowerment scholarships, is 504, or just below 30% of the school’s 1,740 students, he said. Though he was unsure if the number would dramatically increase in the coming years, Kruczek indicated enrollment will remain the same.
“Our enrollment is fixed,” he said. “We don’t have a vision of growing any bigger than (1,740). We like that number.”
Many schools that accept vouchers are in a similar situation, leading some to criticize the lack of affordability for many families.
United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats in a statement said the bill “amounts to welfare for many wealthy parents who spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on private education and will now use this to subsidize that education. Florida “receives the third-largest sum of federal K-12 education funding in the nation yet ranks 48th in per-student spending. This bill does nothing to address the educational crisis.”
Erika Donalds, an avid school choice proponent and wife of Republican U.S. House Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples, argued many schools operate with just the scholarship while others cover the remaining costs of tuition if a family can’t afford it. Moving forward, though, she predicts there will be more options available as the demand increases.
“You’ll see schools whose tuition is $15,000 or maybe more than that, but you’re also going to see schools operating at an affordable price for families,” she said. “And you know, $7,000 above the scholarship is much more affordable than the full $15,000 families are having to contend with right now, so it definitely opens up options for many more families.”
CAN I PICK WHATEVER SCHOOL I WANT?
Not necessarily. At the news conference, DeSantis said the voucher could be used at any school that qualifies and meets the basic standards set by the state.
But according to Aqua, of Teach Florida, that’s about 80% of schools across the state.
To become a participant in the program, the school has to apply. First, it needs to be a private school, has to indicate to the department its intent to participate and must adhere to the state’s scholarship compliance process — a process that typically takes between nine months and two years, Aqua said.
Some of those requirements include demonstrating “fiscal soundness” by operating for at least three school years or filing a surety bond or letter of credit to the Department of Education, and employ or contract teachers “who hold a baccalaureate or higher degree, or have at least three years of teaching experience in public or private schools,” according to the department.
At the news conference Monday, DeSantis did not respond to a question asking if students could use the money for other related expenses if their private school did not accept vouchers.
Another concern arose from bill opponents that private schools may turn away applicants. They can have enrollment limits that public schools may not, and also can reject students they do not see as meeting their objectives.
The sponsors rejected proposed amendments that would prohibit schools from discriminating against students over things such as their sexual identity or their hairstyle. Instead, they agreed to include language requiring participating schools to put information into a statewide online portal explaining how they operate, to help parents decide if they’re a good fit.
Senate sponsor Simon said at one point the goal is not to make the private schools act as public ones, as that would negate the concept of a variety of choices.
HOW DO I GET MY MINE?
To use the money for a full-time private school, parents must select that private school and apply for admission. As part of that process, they’re supposed to meet with school officials to review all applicable policies, expectations, programs and other aspects that might influence their choice.
They also need to apply to one of the scholarship funding organizations that will administer the program, Step Up for Students and AAA Scholarship Foundation.
Those groups will accept applications and determine student eligibility. They also are charged with monitoring compliance with the applicable expenses.
Lawmakers have said their goal is to have enough vouchers for everyone, so wait lists no longer exist. At the same time, senators said during the final debate that the “educational opportunity” vouchers will be funded until the money runs out, with top priority going to families at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, with those between 185% and 400% next.
For a family of four, that translates to families that earn between $55,500 and $120,000 a year.
Vouchers for students with unique abilities and personalized education programs will be limited, with the caps eventually disappearing.
The chambers have yet to work out all the budget details.