Florida is funding vouchers as fast as it can, education commissioner says

More than 200,000 students should have received their money as of Thursday, Manny Diaz said

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | September 28, 2023

Confronted by parents upset about unpaid school vouchers, Florida education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said his department is taking steps to distribute the money as quickly as possible.

By midday Thursday, more than 85,000 students receiving vouchers for special needs had been funded, along with about 120,000 students getting awards for educational options, Diaz said. Another approximately 140,000 children got money through the tax-credit scholarship program, which operates outside the state budget.

“That’s compared to 262,000 all of last year,” Diaz said. “This is a massive expansion of the school choice program.”

That demand placed added pressures on the system, he said.

Parents and private school operators began complaining publicly a week ago that their first-quarter funding had not arrived, despite a Sept. 1 date set in law. Without it, some schools threatened to close, while some parents said they could not afford materials or additional tuition to keep their children in classes.

The money began trickling in days later, though some delays continued.

Diaz said he instructed his department to work with scholarship funding organizations to get quarterly payments out, and to keep current with any new applications that come in.

“The department is required to release four quarterly payments. But we realize parents and schools do not operate on that time line,” Diaz said.

At the same time, he added, the state cannot issue payments until parents have submitted all proper paperwork. That includes proof that they have left a public school and enrolled in a private or home school.

“It’s not a process that is automatic,” Diaz said. “All of those steps are put in place for accountability. … We cannot allow it (student funding) to be double paid.”

Some parents said they’ve been told that, even though their children were approved for special needs vouchers, they are placed on a wait list. The Legislature placed a cap on the number of special needs vouchers available each year, prompting some advocates to announce plans to lobby for changes in the 2024 legislative session.

Diaz said that, as of Thursday, the state did not have a waiting list. The department and funding organizations are reviewing all outstanding applications, he said, and determining how to pay for them.

The Legislature appeared to have set aside enough in the budget — close to $4 billion — to cover the voucher expansion, he said. But it was a projection, he added, that could be affected by the program’s popularity.

“We want everybody who is eligible to receive one,” Diaz said. “It is our goal to make sure every student gets funded and gets what they need.”

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