Gov. DeSantis signs bill expanding school voucher program

Gov. DeSantis signs bill expanding school voucher program

Democratic critics and others have derided the expansion as ‘checks for millionaires.’

Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed legislation making private school vouchers available to all, regardless of income.

The legislation (HB 1) was approved on the Senate floor Thursday and clearly was on the fast track to become law. Democrats’ efforts to introduce growth caps, set up income limits or demand more reporting from private schools getting public money were rebuffed, and the legislation passed largely as originally proposed.

DeSantis, at the bill-signing held at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, a Catholic school, credited the introduction of school choice 25 years ago with the overall improvement in student performance throughout the state. That was echoed in the remarks of House Speaker Paul Renner, who made it clear that this was his top legislative priority.

“Twenty-five years ago we were at the bottom of the barrel,” Renner said. “With school choice and that competition … we have excellent public schools, in part because of school choice.”

Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. also saluted the way the legislation will loosen some public school regulations so they can compete with private schools that have barely any regulations beyond health and safety

“This creates an ecosystem where all of our schools across the board — whether charter or private or district schools — can compete,” Diaz said.

Florida joins just five other states that allow universal choice. Some of those states approved the changes while Florida’s legislation was being debated. Florida is by far the largest among the other universal school choice states, which are Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Utah and West Virginia.

DeSantis, who had expressed some reservations about funding the richest families’ private tuition bills, dismissed the notion that spreading public money to more schools would hurt public schools.

“One, the amount of scholarship money ($8,000 per student) is less than what would go per-pupil for public (schools) anyway,” DeSantis said. “Second, since I’ve been Governor, we’ve raised the amount of funding to our public schools every year. I mean, the idea that they’ve been starved that theoretically could happen … that’s a choice that legislators and a Governor would make, but the push is to have more funding for the school districts.”

Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson also praised the measure Monday.

“Universal School Choice means every Florida student can achieve their unique educational goals, regardless of their family’s income or their zip code,” Wilson said.

“With only 53 percent (of) Florida third graders reading at or above grade level, it is clear Florida families and students need support and flexibility, and this bill empowers them to have tailored educational experiences rather than the current one-size-fits-all approach. The Florida Chamber has actively supported this legislation, as it supports our Florida 2030 Blueprint goal of ensuring every third grader in Florida can read at or above grade level by 2030.”

The cost of the program is still a big unknown, as it’s unclear how many families will apply for the $8,000 vouchers.

Arizona, the first state to implement universal school choice, saw demand for the program quickly overtake projections by hundreds of millions of dollars. In Florida, the Senate has budgeted $350 million in reserves to handle unexpected demand from families. The House, meanwhile, has set aside $110 million for the same line item.

Vouchers had been limited to families making 400% or less than the federal poverty level — about $111,000 a year for a family of four. The state has been able to meet the demand from that group, although there is a waitlist for children with special needs to get funded.

This bill would fund all those waiting students with disabilities and also add:

— Children currently enrolled in public school whose parents earn more than 400% of the federal poverty level.

— Children currently attending private school whose families make too much for the current scholarship, called the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

— Homeschooled students who agree to a certain level of state oversight.

Critics have derided the school choice expansion as “checks for millionaires.” Democratic Rep. Joe Casello of Boynton Beach pointed out in committee that even Tiger Woods’ kids would be eligible to get the new benefit.

Immediately following his State of the State, DeSantis had expressed some doubt that the richest families needed the benefit.

But there was no trace of that Monday.

“This is a move to make people’s dreams a reality,” he said.

Sadaf Knight, CEO of Florida Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, warned about the looming risk to public schools that opening the floodgates of public funding to private schools presents.

“A well-resourced and supported public education system is the cornerstone of a free, thriving democracy,” Knight said, noting that voters in 1998 passed an amendment that made education a “paramount duty” of the state. “It is our ‘paramount duty’ to continue to shine a light on the potential costs of this program and the risks it poses to our public education system.”

Officials with Americans for Prosperity-Florida (AFP-FL) had made the passage of universal school choice its biggest legislative priority for this year. The group thanked DeSantis, Renner, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and the Republican Senate and House sponsors, Sen. Corey Simon and Rep. Kaylee Tuck for their work.

“Today marks the beginning of meaningful education choice for parents across the state, which will result in even brighter futures for Florida’s children,” said Skylar Zander, AFP-FL state director. “By signing this transformative legislation, Gov. DeSantis has dramatically boosted the opportunity for every child in the state to receive an education carefully tailored to their individual needs.”