Special session: House OKs more funding for Jewish school security; more special needs vouchers

By: - November 7, 2023 3:39 pm

The Florida Capitol. Credit: Michael Moline

On issues of education and security in Florida’s public and private school systems, the state House on Tuesday approved legislation to increase funding for schools and other settings deemed vulnerable to terrorist attacks and expand vouchers for special needs students this school year.

Overall, House lawmakers approved $45 million (HB 7 C) to fund physical security, with $25 million earmarked for Jewish day schools and $20 million distributed by the Division of Emergency Management for other locations that “demonstrate an elevated threat level” through a federal grant.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randy Fine, of Brevard County, made clear the impetus for the legislation was the increased acts of anti-Semitism seen in the United States since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

“If I feel one thing in running this bill, I feel a great sense of regret that in the seven years I have tried to address these issues, I have failed,” Fine said before the House passed the (HB 7 C) bill unanimously, 109-0.

When asked by Rep. Patricia Williams, of Broward County, if Historically Black Colleges and Universities would be eligible to receive the funding, Fine said yes, but that the bill does not earmark money for them the same way it does for Jewish schools. Those institutions would have to apply for a specific pot of money.

House Democratic leader Rep. Fentrice Driskell, of Hillsborough, said she was grateful to work on the bill in a bipartisan way and noted that HBCUs have been undergoing risk assessments with the Department of Homeland Security.

She brought up the murder of three Black people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, in which the white shooter had previously tried to enter the campus of Edward Waters University, a historically Black institution.

“On [the shooter’s] weapons, he had swastikas,” Driskell said. “This hate is interconnected. This hate knows no bounds.”

The voucher bill related to special needs students (HB 3 C) also passed unanimously, with a vote of 111-0 in the House.

Republican Rep. Josie Tomkow, of Polk County, turned to frustration over what some lawmakers said was an inefficient job of dispersing vouchers by the state’s primary funding provider – Step Up For Students.

Tomkow’s bill would remove the cap of students eligible for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA) for the 2023-2024 school year. The FES-UA provides vouchers of at least $10,000 for disabled students to find alternative public schooling or receive funds in an education savings account.

The limit is currently at nearly 41,000 students. Tomkow’s bill would potentially allow more than 8,000 students on a waiting list to receive vouchers this school year.

Rep. Robin Bartleman, of Broward County, said that while she’s not a fan of vouchers, she rose in support of the bill to alleviate families with special needs students on the waitlist.

“I have fielded so many calls from these parents about how they have lost these services or couldn’t get their services,” Bartleman said. “This is the right thing to do.”

Rep. Kelly Skidmore, of Broward, also voiced support for the bill, but also said she had a lot of concerns that broader problems with Florida’s funding partner for the vouchers weren’t being addressed.

“This money needs to get to the students, and it needs to get to the parents,” Skidmore said. “But my concern lies with Step Up for Students and other funding organizations that are not living up to their obligations.”

Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani, of Orange County, also said she had heard from constituents facing “huge delays,” which she said is directly due to issues with Step Up For Students’ customer service.

The two bills passed Tuesday will have to be approved by the Florida Senate as well.

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Christian Casale
Christian Casale

Christian covers education, politics, and whatever else interests him for the Florida Phoenix. He has previously worked as a reporter and editor with the Independent Florida Alligator.