The Phoenix Flyer

Another school voucher proposal, this time from Senate Republicans

By: - February 21, 2019 2:52 pm
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A week after Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed a new “Florida Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program,” key Senate Republicans announced their own voucher plan on Thursday, rattling Democrats who oppose using public dollars for private school vouchers.

The Senate Republican proposal is called the “Family Empowerment Scholarship.”

The money for the scholarships, or vouchers, will come out of the traditional pots of state dollars used to fund public schools.

The proposal is not expected to be filed as legislation until next week, but Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., the Republican Senate Education Committee chairman who represents part of Miami-Dade, provided some of the details and said the proposal is similar to DeSantis’s plan.

Students would be eligible for the Family Empowerment Scholarship if their family income is no higher than 260 percent of the federal poverty level.

That would be roughly $67,000 for a family of four, according to 2019 figures from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services — more than double the federal poverty guideline of $25,750 for a family of four. DeSantis’s proposal is 265 percent, about $68,000.

Based on those numbers, the vouchers would not necessarily be for very poor students, which historically have benefited from the programs.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship would be capped at 15,000 students statewide, “with the ability to grow as the overall public school student population grows,” according to a news release.

After 2019-20, DeSantis’s voucher plan would grow each year by 1 percent of Florida’s public school student population, which currently would be about 28,000 kids eligible for vouchers.

Senate Democrats blasted the Republican plan.

“Siphoning taxpayer dollars to subsidize private schools is not only bad policy, it’s unconstitutional,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Senate Democrat Leader. She represents part of Duval County.

“The vast majority of Florida’s children still attend traditional public schools, carrying on a tradition which has withstood the test of time in providing a quality education despite the never-ending legislative attempts to undermine their mission,” Gibson said in a statement.

But the voucher plans have support from some families, lawmakers and advocacy groups.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of the conservative nonprofit Foundation for Florida’s Future, praised the proposed Senate Republican scholarship program. Her group was founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“For the past 20 years, hundreds of thousands of Florida families have benefited from public and private education options. Our public schools are stronger, student learning has consistently been on the rise, and families have benefited from being able to make more and more decisions on behalf of their children,” Levesque said in a statement.

“It’s time for the Florida Legislature to be bold and finally include hard-working, middle-income families in the scholarship programs that we know have benefited low-income families and students with special needs. It’s time for the middle-class families to have the opportunity to participate in educational choice.”

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.