Florida school voucher bill passes its first test, but big questions remain
By Jeffrey S. Solochek,
Florida lawmakers faced major questions but came away with few new answers Thursday as they began to sort through a bill that would vastly expand school vouchers.
Among the biggest unknowns left for another day was where the state will find money for as many as 500,000 students who would be eligible for education savings accounts under House Bill 1. That’s the approximate number of private school and home-schooled children who do not currently get a scholarship or voucher from the state.
Based on the state’s funding formula, each would be eligible to receive about $8,000 a year, potentially adding billions to the state budget. The bill proposes offering the accounts to every child who does not attend a public school, with the money to be used for private school tuition and other education expenses.
The House Education Choice and Innovation Subcommittee discussed cost and other key issues related to the bill, with 12 Republicans and one Democrat voting to advance it, and four Democrats opposed.
Bill sponsor Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, said her goal is to ensure that all children regardless of income can get the subsidy.
“We want to be sure every student has the ability to get a customized education,” Tuck said.
She did not directly respond to questions from Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, who wanted to know where the money for the extra students will come from.
Nixon proposed an amendment to limit the vouchers to families making less than $1 million a year. It failed.
Tuck said the public schools never got money for students who don’t attend them, so it would not change funding for school districts. She added that a more detailed explanation of the expenses and revenue sources should be available for the bill’s next stop at the PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee.
During public testimony, Florida Education Association analyst Cathy Boehme encouraged the lawmakers to make clear whether they will have a recurring source of money to pay for and sustain these students’ vouchers. She noted that the current cost is $1.3 billion, or about 10% of the state’s total share of education funding.
Boehme suggested two other areas lawmakers might wish to address as the bill moves forward.
First, she said, the measure could address transparency, requiring schools that accept voucher funds to provide adequate information about their rules, policies and practices for parents to see, so they can make informed choices. Other speakers noted that many of the private schools currently taking vouchers are not accredited, for instance, and some have philosophies objecting to LGBTQ rights.
Rep. Susan Valdés, D-Tampa, proposed an amendment to require full disclosure of such rules to parents. Tuck called the proposal unfriendly, saying schools must follow federal antidiscrimination laws in addition to meeting with parents about their expectations ahead of enrollment.
Valdés had better luck with an amendment that would require scholarship funding organizations to inform families that receiving a voucher would not guarantee them enrollment in any specific school or program.
Finally, Boehme contended the lawmakers should deal with fairness, noting public schools are highly regulated while private and home schooling are not. If the state is seeking to improve education for all children, she said, it might want to address this issue.
She was not the only one to make recommendations.
Florida Citizens Alliance co-chairperson Rick Stevens, who supported the bill, said it could be made better by removing some of the requirements proposed on home school students, such as using a “choice navigator” to help make education decisions and taking a national norm-referenced test.
Most public speakers and committee members did not spend much time dealing with such intricacies. Rather, they focused on the big-picture issue of parent choices in education. Many took the side that the time has come for this “transformational” change, while others contended it would be the death knell for public schooling.
“Today, we will keep parents in the driver’s seat, and today we will fund students, not systems,” Tuck said.
Valdés later noted that the Florida Constitution states the Legislature has as a paramount duty to provide for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools.” Rep. Kevin Chambliss, D-Homestead, expressed hope that the lawmakers would address private choice and public schools as a package.
“Why aren’t we talking about increasing public school funding while discussing choice?” Chambliss said. “I don’t agree with two separate systems to educate children.... This should have been one conversation.”
HB 1 next goes to the PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee. A Senate companion bill has not yet been filed.
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