School voucher expansion bills could face hurdles and disagreements, even among Republicans

GOP Sen. Grall wants more transparency from private schools that use vouchers

By: - February 22, 2023 7:00 am

Students in a classroom. Credit: Getty Images.

The discussion over so-called “school vouchers” has long been a contentious battle in education politics, and GOP lawmakers are pushing to expand the voucher program immensely if all goes well this spring in the Florida Legislature. But it isn’t going well, at least for now.

The legislation has become fraught with confusion and disagreements over allowing students to attend private schools using taxpayer dollars, and the trajectory of the legislation is now unclear.

“I am concerned with the posture of the bill right now, in terms of what that looks like for being accountable to the taxpayer, and really accountable to the parent, in terms of transparency,” said Sen. Erin Grall, a Republican who sponsored the controversial Parents’ Bill of Rights law in 2021 during her time as a state House representative.

“I think that there is additional transparency that could be included in this bill that would lead to greater accountability, not only on behalf of — really on behalf of us in our fiscal role, but also help the parent navigate complicated systems,” Grall said at a Senate committee meeting Tuesday on PreK-12 education.

Currently, the state’s main scholarships, or vouchers, are designated for specific students: those with disabilities, and those who come from low-income to middle-class families. But legislation proposed in both the Senate and the House would let all K-12 students in Florida be eligible for the vouchers, regardless of income. That would mean the children of millionaire and billionaire families could attend private schools funded by public dollars.

GOP lawmakers have typically approved voucher expansions. Democrats usually don’t. It’s not clear if Gov. Ron DeSantis supports vouchers for children of millionaires and billionaires, according to a report from POLITICO.

State Sen. Erin Grall, representing several counties in South Central Florida. Credit: Florida Legislature.

Grall has argued that adding transparency provisions would allow parents to have a more informed choice when considering using a voucher program to attend a private school.

“For example, there’s a list of private schools that accept the scholarships on the DOE (Department of Education) website, and there’s a list and whether or not it’s religious, military, what grades they serve, the students they serve, the denomination, whether or not the school is accredited and whether or that school serves specific disabilities,” Grall said.

“We could add the curriculum at this school has, the test that the school has chosen to take as part of the requirement, and what the actual scores were for the school — to make it easy for parents to see how that school has performed, not only among other private schools in their community, but also among the public school options that are available,” she added.

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, told the Phoenix that the statewide teacher union has been asking for accountability for private schools, as suggested by Grall, for years.

“I think there’s something to be said about those accountability measures and just having those minimum accountability measures in place that allow parents to truly make decisions – I think that’s where Sen. Grall is coming from,” he told the Phoenix. “And I don’t believe she’s alone in that, on either side of the aisle.”

He added: “I’m not a fan of vouchers, but if there are going to be vouchers out there, I think there should be some assurances to the parents, and to the taxpayers, that those schools that are accepting those vouchers maintain certain minimum standards. That’s always been our position and our hope.”

As it stands now, the House has a voucher expansion bill, HB 1, that rolled out earlier and is sponsored by Rep. Kaylee Tuck of South Central Florida and Rep. Susan Plasencia of Central Florida.

The Senate has a similar but not identical bill sponsored by Sen. Corey Simon, SB 202, who represents North Florida counties.

The two bills would need to come to a consensus, and lawmakers will likely offer amendments to change how the voucher legislation would function.

But that’s not the only hurdle that lawmakers will need to face to get to the finish line this coming spring session.

State Sen. Corey Simon (center) discusses a voucher expansion bill that also includes certain public-school measures. Feb. 21, 2023. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Sen. Simon’s bill adds a smattering of topics in the public-school arena, spanning from graduation requirements to teacher certification. The topics are not about vouchers.

Here’s a sample from Simon’s version:

/Allow school districts to use some state funds currently intended to raise starting teacher pay to go towards increasing the salaries of other full-time instructional personnel;

/Remove a graduation requirement that forced students to take an online class during their time in high school;

/Expand the timeframe of a temporary teaching certificate from three years to five years;

/Require the state Board of Education to evaluate and offer revisions or repeals to the current education law in Florida and provide recommendations to the governor and the Florida Legislature in 2024. Some 2.8 million students attend Florida’s public schools.

Putting the public-school measures in a voucher expansion bill would likely put pressure on Democrats in the Senate. They would want to approve some of those public-school items, but they wouldn’t want to approve the voucher expansion.

Florida Democrats have quickly denounced the voucher expansion, arguing that the legislation would “defund” public schools and “destroy public schools as we know them.

Sen. Simon told the Phoenix after the committee meeting Tuesday that: “All parties involved are still looking through ways to make it better, so we’ll continue that line of communication. And as it moves, this bill will get better over time, so I’m excited about having those open lines communication.”

He added: “It’s just gonna take some time, you know…I hate to give definitive statements right now, because things are changing, in that: the process is doing with the process is supposed to do, and so we’re just looking forward to putting the best bill we can possibly get out of the Senate.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.