Legislation expanding school choice heads to the Senate floor

Florida Politics | By Anne Geggis | March 16, 2023

The Senate version limits homeschool scholarships to those willing to submit to more oversight.

A bill creating universal school choice — giving vouchers to all students regardless of income — is heading to the full Senate.

The bill (SB 202), sponsored by Sen. Corey Simon of Tallahassee, aced its third committee stop in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee, passing along party lines.

Rep. Kaylee Tuck of Lake Placid is carrying the House version (HB 1) that’s now on its way to the House floor. House Speaker Paul Renner has tagged it as a chief priority for the Republican supermajority. But Gov. Ron DeSantis has expressed some reservations about expanding the program to the wealthiest families, as the bills envision.

Right now, families of four with an annual income of $111,000 qualify for the $8,000 per student voucher to approved private schools. Everyone who has applied for that scholarship has received it. Currently, there is a waiting list for special education students to get a scholarship, which is funded at a higher level.

The bill will prioritize families at the lower end, but open up the voucher for every student to all families, fund all the special education students currently on the waiting list and open up public funding for some students learning at home.

Simon introduced an amendment that will remove a portion of the homeschooling families from receiving the $8,000-a-year voucher that the House bill envisions. To be eligible for the program, homeschooling families will have to submit to more oversight, he said.

The cost has proven difficult to pin down. Thursday was the first time the Senate bill had a cost attached: $646.5 million in new costs. That contrasts with the House estimates, which show about $210 million in new costs for the expansion.

Much depends on individual families’ decisions. In Arizona, where universal choice was implemented beginning this school year, the new benefit blew a hole in state expenditures.

Rocky Hanna, Superintendent of Leon County, urged Senators to vote against the bill, citing ballooning costs and the underfunded state of public schools right now.

“I fear the worst is to come,” he said, noting that Florida is in the bottom 10 states for per-pupil expenditures and in the basement in public school teacher pay rankings. “Please, please do not do this. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Letricia Jones, a mother and a grandmother, said the step is necessary to eliminate the current bureaucracy faced when students want to go to private school.

“Our children are in a state of emergency from the bottom to the top,” she said.

Republican Senators lauded Simon’s work on the bill.

“You took on a big dog … with grace,” said Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley. “This day is a huge day.”

Democratic Sen. Tracie Davis, blasted the bill for the 3% administration fee going to private companies administering the scholarships, yet nothing for the public school districts that will still bear some administrative costs of students going to private school.

“I cannot run in the same race when you tie my hands and tie my feet,” she said of public schools.

Democrats complained that a 99-page amendment changing the bill was dropped on them on Wednesday.

“It’s not ready for prime time,” said Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky of Boca Raton.

Democrats also urged taking the funding for vouchers out of the pot that goes to public schools until they can see how parents decide and what the fiscal impact of the expansion has.

Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo, representing the Miami area, called the current funding plan “bad stewardship of our constituent dollars.”

“It could grow into billions,” of new costs, Pizzo argued. “Are we as the Legislature going to create a new line item if that were to happen?”

Simon closed on the bill and evoked his own experience growing up on the south side of Tallahassee.

“It’s about students and families having access and opportunity,” Simon said.

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