Gov. Ron DeSantis signs massive school voucher expansion on March 27, 2023. Credit: Gov. Ron DeSantis Facebook page
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed an expansive voucher law to provide public money for children to attend parochial, secular and other private schools across the state, despite previous skepticism about letting millionaire and billionaire families participate in Florida’s K-12 school voucher programs.
In the past, voucher, or “scholarship” programs have been used by low-income and middle-income families. But that won’t be the case under the new law that begins July 1, 2023. Soon, the wealthiest of families will be eligible for taxpayer dollars to give their kids a private education, including at elite, pricey private schools.
Just recently, the governor has received several million-dollar contributions from his Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC, as he potentially tees up a presidential run for 2024, according to campaign finance documents.
Meanwhile, questions abound as DeSantis and other officials stood in an auditorium at Christopher Columbus High School, a Catholic private school for boys in Miami. (Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. told the crowd that his son graduated from that private high school.) However, there were several young children in uniforms at the event.
What happens if a child wants to go to a private school but is rejected? What if a private school has a tuition fee that is higher than the value of a voucher provided by the state?
The new voucher expansion will provide families with what are called “empowerment savings accounts.” The idea is to let families have a flexible fund that could be used for a variety of expenses, including private school tuition, tutors, online courses and learning materials, according to legislative analysis. The funds available will be equal to the public school district’s per-student funding. Current budget proposals suggest that could be about $8,500 dollars on average.
A scholarship funding organization such as Step Up for Students will be tasked to approve expenditures before funding goes out to the families using the state voucher funds and will be required to post “purchasing guidelines” for authorized use of voucher funds on its website.
Such organizations are also required to notify parents that participation in a scholarship program does not guarantee enrollment in a particular private school.
DeSantis previously expressed skepticism over the philosophy of including Florida’s wealthy families in the taxpayer-funded ‘scholarship’ programs, but that issue did not deter him from signing HB 1 into law Monday morning.
“It expands school choice to every single student in the state of Florida and it does that by eliminating the current financial eligibility restrictions and allowing any student who is a resident of Florida and is eligible to enroll in K-12 to participate in school choice scholarships,” DeSantis said at the bill signing Monday.
“Now, primarily there will be a preference for low and middle-income family, but at the end of the day, we fundamentally believe that the money should follow the student. And it should be directed based on what the parent thinks is the most appropriate education program for their child,” he added.
The voucher bill HB 1, which is now signed by the governor, also includes a variety of measures intending to “deregulate” public schools, including removing a graduation requirement that forced students to take one of their classes online and expands a temporary teaching certificate expiration from just three years to five years.
But as the bill went through the session, most of the criticisms of and support for the bill centered around the school voucher expansion.
A Phoenix analysis found that several districts had high percentages of private schools within their school district boundaries.
With the more eligibility from the new expanded voucher program, more families might attend some of those private schools.
For example, Miami-Dade had the highest percentage of private schools in its district in Florida. Following Miami-Dade, the analysis showed Seminole, Flagler, Osceola and Orange counties with high percentages of private schools in their districts.
Reactions to voucher expansion
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the House Democratic Leader referred to the voucher expansion as “coupons” for millionaires, in a virtual press availability Monday.
“This could be devastating to Florida’s public schools,” Driskell said. “Which, always keep in mind that the Florida Constitution mandates that the Legislature have an adequately funded, well-funded, high-quality system for public schools, not these two systems that we have created with these corporate schools and the coupons that we’re giving to millionaires so that they can send their kids to these corporate schools.”
Rep. Angie Nixon, a Democrat who represents part of Duval County and an opponent of the school voucher expansion, said in a written statement following the bill signing:
“While our teachers need a raise and our students need supplies, this bill will take away those much-needed resources. HB 1 is not about choice, it’s about defunding our neighborhood public schools, taking that choice away from Florida’s families.”
Andrew Spar, president of the statewide teacher union called Florida Education Association, said in a written statement Monday that “average Floridians will be helping pay for millionaires and billionaires to send their kids to elite private schools that hand-select their students.”
“Once again, we see Gov. DeSantis putting his political ambitions ahead of Floridians, including our students,” he continued in the statement.
Meanwhile, Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is a vocal supporter for vouchers, is celebrating the bill signing. He said in a tweet Monday:
“Historic day in the #SunshineState! Thank you @GovRonDeSantis, @Paul_Renner, @Kathleen4SWFL for making Florida the #1 state for educational freedom. #HB1 gives families and students unprecedented choice, transforms education.”
Other organizations are in support of the school voucher expansion.
“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 of Commerce said in a written statement Monday. “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.”
Some religious intuitions have voiced their support for the bill signing as well.
“Catholic schools look forward to working with the Florida Department of Education and scholarship funding organizations to implement the provisions of this historic law that will transform K-12 education in Florida,” said Michael Sheedy, executive director for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to a press release. “This marks the accomplishment of a long-standing goal of so many stakeholders to bring educational choice to every family in Florida.”
Florida Phoenix Deputy Editor Michael Moline contributed to this report.
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