Senate budgets $350M in reserves for school choice overrun

Florida Politics | By Anne Geggis | March 23, 2023

The Senate reserve for the universal voucher rollout is more than three times the House’s budget shows.

The Senate is proposing an education budget appropriation that includes $350 million in reserves for school vouchers in case more students than expected enroll as the state readies a new bill offering universal school choice.

The House PreK-12 Appropriations Committee budget, meanwhile, proposes setting aside $110 million for the same unknown.

Making school vouchers available to new categories of students, regardless of family income, is on a legislative fast track. The budget documents from both chambers show its passage is considered a given, even if the exact fiscal impact won’t be known until the time families make their choice.

The House PreK-12 Appropriations budget discussed in committee doesn’t itemize the Family Empowerment Scholarships (FES) specifically. But a news release from the Senate side highlights the amount dedicated to scholarships that, next school year, can go to homeschooling families and families earning more than 400% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), assuming the bill becomes law.

“Recognizing the visionary school choice legislation the Senate will pass this week, our budget provides $2.2 billion for Family Empowerment Scholarships (FES) with the scholarships funded independently from the school district calculations,” said Sen. Keith Perry of Gainesville.

“This level of funding ensures traditional, neighborhood public schools that have been — and will continue to be — the backbone of our K-12 education system (and) see a historic level of per-student funding.”

Critics of the plan to offer universal school vouchers have raised alarms about the unknown costs and how it may harm the public schools, where most of the state’s children are educated.

For total funding, budget documents show the Senate and the House are just a hair apart on funding what’s known as the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) which allocates money to school districts based on student enrollment and other factors. The Senate’s total funding is at $26.7 billion, counting both local funds and the state’s allocation, and the House’s is at $26.6 billion.

The House proposes updating the funding formula to give school districts more spending flexibility, however. The budget discussed in the House PreK-12 committee on Wednesday shows that categories of expenses have been rolled into the base student allocation (BSA), so the House budget shows a $760 per-student increase, compared to the $182 per-student increase in the Senate’s budget document.

The House committee’s presentation brought a slew of Miami-Dade County school representatives to the mike to praise the way the committee recognized the need of school districts like Miami-Dade’s, which have a substantial number coming to school for the first time from homes where English is not spoken.

“The House budget is a step forward,” said Mari Tere Rojas, Chair of the Miami-Dade County School Board.  

But Marie-Claire Leman, with Fund Education Now, raised the concern about how less transparency occurs when categories like “instructional materials” are rolled into per-pupil costs.

“At this time of great uncertainty, not knowing how many more students the state will be funding (in private settings), it’s really important we proceed with caution,” Leman said. “The one thing that we have to pay really close attention to is the funding that is going to the (scholarships) through the (funding formula).”

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