LISTEN LIVE

Florida’s School Voucher Program Headed Toward Expansion

After starting a school-voucher program last year, Florida lawmakers appear ready to speed up its expansion.

Key House and Senate panels Tuesday approved bills that include boosting the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which provides vouchers for nearly 18,000 students to attend private schools this year. The program was anticipated to grow each year, but the bills would accelerate that --- potentially adding about 28,900 students during the upcoming school year, according to a House analysis.

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who is sponsoring the Senate bill (SB 1220), said parents are looking for “freedom and opportunity” in educating their children.

“It is the responsibility of parents to be able to put students in the best possible scenario for that student to be successful. … And what this bill does is just make a small move in that direction to make sure that we’re not leaving students and parents who want to make that choice behind,” Diaz said before the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved his bill.

But critics argued that lawmakers should focus on spending more money on public schools rather than expanding the taxpayer-funded vouchers.

“Until we are adequately funding our public schools, this is premature,” Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, said before the House Appropriations Committee approved the House bill (HB 7067).

The House and Senate bills include differences that will have to be worked out before the scheduled March 13 end of the legislative session. The Senate bill, for example, deals with teacher professional-development issues that are not included in the House bill.

But the bills include identical proposed changes that would help accelerate growth of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program. Also, House and Senate Republican leaders have long supported expanding school-choice programs, making it likely they will agree on a final bill that bolsters the Family Empowerment scholarships.

When the program was approved last year, lawmakers capped enrollment at 18,000 students for the 2019-2020 school year, with 17,724 vouchers funded as of Feb. 1, according to the House analysis.

But last year’s law also built in a formula designed to lead to expansions of the program in subsequent years.

That formula called for increasing the number of students in the program annually by an amount equal to 0.25 percent of the overall enrollment of public schools --- a potential increase of 7,225 vouchers during the 2020-2021 school year, according to the House analysis.

But the bills approved Tuesday would change that formula to lead to an increase equal to 1 percent of the overall enrollment of public schools. That would translate into an estimated 28,902 additional vouchers during the 2020-2021 year, the analysis said.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship program was added last year to other voucher-like programs such as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. The structure of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, however, differs. Vouchers under the program are funded at 95 percent of the amount that would ordinarily go to educating students in public schools.