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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

A universal school choice plan and voucher expansion is heading to DeSantis' desk

Austin Pacheco

Democrats, teachers unions and public school districts say it will drain funding away from private and charter schools as students leave those schools.

Florida is the latest state to expand its school voucher program to all students, regardless of their family income and whether they’re in private school or homeschool. The new program makes every school aged child in the state eligible for an education savings account that can be used on related expenses, or a private school tuition stipend.

The move toward what supporters have called universal school choice has been 25 years in the making—Florida has been steadily expanding its school choice programs since their inception in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The effort has come over increasing objections of mostly Democrats, teachers unions and public school districts who worry this latest move will drain funding away from private and charter schools as students leave those schools.

“The more successful this becomes, the more it drains and the more it pulls,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood. Pizzo notes there’s been no state analysis on the cost of the bill. The estimates put forward so far have come only from House and Senate staffers. The latest of those estimates have placed the cost of the expansion at $645 million, with the bulk of that money coming from an already-existing taxpayer funded scholarship program.

An independent group has a cost estimate as high as $4 billion based on the presumption that private school families that don’t currently have a voucher, will elect to tap into the program.

Still, school choice supporters argue the cost isn’t what they’re primarily concerned about and they’re willing to spend whatever it takes to bring universal choice to Florida. Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, believes opponents are being disingenuous by focusing solely on cost, noting, “they wouldn’t have a problem with the cost,” if the money was going to public schools. “What they have a problem with is the choice of a parent,” Simon said.

In a statement, the state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association said, “Florida’s families overwhelmingly count on their neighborhood public schools as the best place for their children to get the education they deserve and need. HB 1 will siphon billions away from the schools where nearly 90 percent of Florida’s students learn and grow.”

FEA President Andrew Spar said, “this bill will leave children with fewer resources in their already underfunded classrooms and fewer teachers and staff to meet their needs. Sending tax dollars to unaccountable, corporate-run private schools is just wrong. This bill is a political priority of a governor who puts his political ambition ahead of Florida’s families.”

The parental rights group Moms for America cheered passage of the legislation, which includes additional protections for homeschooling families who may choose the education savings accounts.

“Our topmost priority was to safeguard parental rights and religious liberties for homeschooling and private Christian educational institutions – both of which are under attack by politicians and union bosses all over the country,” said Rebekah Ricks, President of Florida Moms for America. “Our legislators took measures to hear and address our concerns by ensuring that our rights are explicitly outlined.”
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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.