The 22-story Florida Capitol towers over the old Historic Capitol. Credit: Diane Rado
The Florida Legislature passed two bills during Wednesday’s special legislative session — to bolster security at Jewish day schools and allow more special needs students to receive state scholarships, or vouchers, to attend private schools with public dollars.
The “Security Grants” bill approves $45 million for physical security funding — 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 legislation comes after what lawmakers have said were increased instances of anti-Semitism since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has recorded “a significant spike in antisemitic incidents across the United States.”
Meanwhile, Black lawmakers took the opportunity during the bill’s debate to emphasize the need for Historically Black Colleges and Universities to receive security funding — especially after the murder of three Black people in Jacksonville at a Dollar General store in late August. The white shooter had previously tried to enter the campus of Edward Waters University, a historically Black institution.
Sen. Tracie Davis of Jacksonville held back tears Wednesday as she recalled speaking to her constituents after the shooting.
“My ask is that, a little bit more, we consider the thought of doing something for our HBCUs,” she said, though she agreed with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ comments that students needed to be protected and secure at school.
The voucher legislation is about removing the cap of students eligible for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA) this school year. The FES-UA provides vouchers for disabled students to find alternative public schooling or receive funds in an education savings account.
The 2023-2024 school year cap was set at nearly 41,000 students, with more than 8,000 estimated to be on the waitlist.
Although the legislation had support even from lawmakers who don’t support expanded voucher programs in Florida, many throughout the special session raised concerns about the efficiency of FES-UA’s funding.
State Rep. Robin Bartleman of Broward County said that her constituents have reached out and said the state’s primary funding partner for FES-UA — Step Up For Students — is not adequately distributing funds in time, causing financial straits for families and schools.
“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.”
Both bills passed unanimously in both the House and Senate this week, and the measures will now go to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
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