TALLAHASSEE – A proposed massive expansion of Florida’s private school voucher program easily cleared its first House stop Thursday, despite drawing blistering criticism that it would drain billions of dollars of needed cash from public schools used by 2.9 million students.
Analysts estimate the “universal choice” plan backed by House Speaker Paul Renner could steer $2.4 billion from public schools as early as next year, as students take their state dollars to private schools.
But voucher proponents hailed the approach.
“Government education in this state and this country for too long has been a monopoly,” said Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers. “And the only way you break a monopoly is to inject and allow and encourage competition. And that’s what we seek to do here.”
Roach said the legislation (HB 1) gives more parents a choice.
“If you want your child to attend a government school, which I believe oftentimes results in an inferior education and condemns them to a life of government dependence, you have the option to do that,” he added. “But how dare you tell me that I have to make that decision.”
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“Two systems” relying on taxpayer dollars
Opponents, though, said the House’s plan would create “two systems,” of K-12 education, public and private, with both relying on taxpayer dollars.
“Public education has been the bedrock of democracy,” said Sarah Butzin, with the League of Women Voters-Florida. “This voucher system for years has been chipping away to fund private and religious education at public expense. HB 1 now adds a sledge hammer.”
Rev. Rachel Gunter Shapard of Jacksonville said the legislation is seen by supporters as “freedom for all, but it is really freedom for a small few, that could result in the utter devastation of our public education system.”
Advocates included a large contingent of Americans for Prosperity activists who helped pack the House committee room. AFP, a libertarian group created and funded by Koch Industries’ David Koch, has long supported the voucher effort.
“Families should be the primary decision-maker in their child’s education,” said Tiffany Barfield, with Yes Every Kid, an education policy organization.
She called “all nonsense,” the idea that the voucher expansion harms the education system.
Early estimates on redirection of public dollars
The Florida Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning research group based in Orlando, has studied the redirection of public dollars to private schools. Its estimate of $2.4 billion being redirected from state coffers represents roughly 10% of the $24.3 billion spent this year on public schools.
The legislation cleared a House education subcommittee Thursday on a 13-4 vote, with Democrats opposed and Republicans supporting the measure. It was the first hearing on the measure unveiled last week by Renner, with the HB1 designation showing it’s a top priority for the Palm Coast Republican.
Florida has been enhancing school choice options for the past 25 years, but the House’s push represents the breaking of a last barrier.
Most income eligibility standards lifted
The legislation discards what had been a requirement that families qualify for private school vouchers according to income eligibility or having children with special needs.
The legislation also would end a more than 9,000-student waiting list for special needs children seeking private school scholarships. And it would allow home-school parents to receive state dollars under the scholarship program, although that would be capped at the first 10,000 students into the program.
The state’s primary voucher programs, the Family Empowerment Scholarship and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship included about 188,000 students last year.
Efforts by Democrats Thursday to impose a cap on tuition increases at private schools participating in the program and another adding language to bar these schools from discriminating against students for sexual orientation, hair-style or ethnic origin were defeated by Republicans.
Also defeated was an amendment by Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, that would have barred families with a household income of $1 million or more from getting a private school voucher.
“This bill will give handouts to wealthy families by redirecting public tax dollars to institutions with zero oversight and accountability, while defunding public schools that serve over 90% of our students,” Nixon said later in a statement.
The legislation eliminates financial eligibility standards for the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarships, which now are confined to families earning at or below 400% of the federal poverty level – or $111,000 for a family of four.
The maximum scholarship award amount for the 2021-22 school year was $7,408 per student.
Lower-income families to continue as priority
Continuing under the proposal would be the state requirement that families earning less than 185% of poverty, or $51,338 for a family of four, be prioritized in gaining the private school vouchers.
Florida’s more than two-decade history of steering students to private schools using state dollars has included schools closing because of financial or academic improprieties. Supporters, though, focused on the turnaround some children make when leaving public schools for private education.
“The accreditation is being taken care of by the parent,” said Henry Munoz of Ocala. “You put your kid in private school, you’re going to make sure that kid is doing his best.”
The sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, said she thinks the expansion will “have a modest impact. Honestly, I don’t think we’re going to see the mass exodus from public schools that everybody is claiming.
“I really do think we have good public schools in our area and the bill is simply about that inherent choice, not taking away public education,” she said.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport