House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo are pushing to broaden eligibility to allow even millionaires to use taxpayer dollars for “scholarships” or so-called vouchers to send their kids to private schools.
Currently, only certain students are eligible: Low and medium-income families and students with special needs.
But legislation filed Thursday morning would open the door for nearly every K-12 student in Florida to be eligible to get a private education with tax dollars, because even high-income families would qualify.
That said, the House bill, sponsored by Kaylee Tuck of South-Central Florida, still includes a priority for very low-income families. And not all families could even afford some of the higher-priced private schools in Florida.
According to Step Up for Students, which oversees Florida’s state scholarship programs, the average scholarship for private school education is $7,700.
“We’re just simply making sure that nobody is left out,” House Speaker Renner said a press conference in the Capitol on Thursday.
The bill, HB 1: School Choice, was filed Thursday morning, but many questions have arisen on how the expansion would work or how much money would be required to implement the broad legislation.
“We’re working on what that amount is,” Renner said during media questions about the bill.
Families at or below the 185 percent of the federal poverty level would be first in line, according to the bill. Currently eligibility caps at families who are at 375 percent of the federal poverty level.
In 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a scholarship expansion, which condensed the number of scholarship programs.
Some parents look to private schools if they feel that the public education system is not best suited for their children, including those with special needs. Others seek religious instruction. Others simply are not satisfied with their neighborhood school and want to enroll their kids in a different one.
But critics of state-funded scholarship programs say that money that goes into those vouchers could be used to fund Florida’s massive public school system.
The vast majority of students in Florida are public school students. In a 2021-22 annual report from the Department of Education, there were 416,084 private school students compared to 2,833,175 public school students.
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, a statewide teacher union, said in a tweet Thursday:
“Regarding the newly filed HB 1, lawmakers should be focused on providing resources to the public schools that educate nearly 90 percent of Florida’s students, not on diverting more funds to unaccountable private and religious schools.”
He added in a follow-up tweet: “Right now, the teacher and staff shortage in our public schools means many students lack the small class sizes and one-on-one attention they need and deserve. Giving more public money to private schools will not improve that situation.”
HB 1 currently does not have a Senate companion bill. However, Senate President Passidomo tweeted her support of the initiative:
“Here in the free State of Florida, we trust parents to make the best decisions for their children. This historic legislation empowers parents, ensuring they direct the significant funding Florida taxpayers are dedicating to education to the best program for their child.”
House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell, who represents part of Hillsborough County, also held a press conference Thursday, where she and a handful of other Democrats criticized the expansive school choice bill.
The House Democrats claim that private schools can be selective of which students enroll in the school, whereas the public school system is supposed to serve all Florida students.
“The way these vouchers are designed, the schools get to pick winners and losers out of our kids — with disabilities, disadvantaged communities, LGBTQ+, different religions and backgrounds,” Driskell said Thursday.
“Plainly, said this sets our state backwards. This is ‘school choice’ for schools, and not for Florida’s families. This will also probably leave a price tag for the difference that the parents must pay when the voucher does not cover the full cost of tuition,” she added.
Rep. Felicia Robinson of South Florida argued that funds should be put towards public education instead.
“If we have the extra money to invest in education and to ensure that all students have a quality education, why aren’t we putting more of this money into our public school so they can be up to par and actually accomplish the goal that is set, and make sure that every child has a quality education?” Robinson said. “By use taking this money out and giving this money to our voucher program, we’re actually defunding public education, which is really sad for the state of Florida.”
This report first appeared on the website of the Florida Phoenix, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to coverage of state government and politics from Tallahassee. It has been edited for length..