Florida House Republicans unveil plan for 'universal school choice'

'Today, we empower parents and children to decide the education that best fits their needs,' Florida House Speaker Rep. Paul Renner says
Posted at 7:08 PM, Jan 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-19 19:08:47-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee announced Thursday a plan for "universal school choice." If approved, their bill would make all students eligible to receive state funds for private tuition, regardless of income or ability.

Approval of the bill wouldn't just be big, it would be the biggest expansion of Florida's school voucher program since its inception during the Jeb Bush administration.

"Today, we empower parents and children to decide the education that best fits their needs," Florida House Speaker Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said.

HB1 was filed a short time before Thursday morning's news conference. The plan strips the low-income requirements from the Family Empowerment Scholarship, allowing any public school-eligible student to apply. Low-income families still get priority, however.

And there's more.

Families homeschooling can get a slice of state dollars as well for things like online lessons or private tutoring.

"Florida is committed, has always been committed, and will always be committed to providing the best education system possible," said state Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, who's carrying the bill in the House.

Republicans — including former Gov. Jeb Bush heaped praise on the idea shortly after its announcement. Florida Senate President Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, was among them. It suggests the upper chamber will be in lockstep with the House.

"This visionary bill makes school choice a reality for every child in every family across our great state by providing parents the chance to guide how and where the funding for their children’s education is spent,” said Passidomo in a tweet.

Renner also predicted bipartisan support— though Democrats were quick to condemn HB 1 during their news conference a short time later.

"To be clear — there is nothing in this bill that I like," said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, the House Minority Leader.

Members of the minority caucus called HB 1 a "betrayal" of Florida's public schools. Many believed passage would result in more students in private education — where state standards for educators and academics don't apply.

"Why aren't we taking this extra money and making each one of our public schools a school of excellence?" said state Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, D-Gainesville.

With super minorities in both chambers of the Legislature, it will be tough, if not, impossible for opponents to defeat the bill as more and more Republicans support it.

HB1's next stop is the committee process. It's scheduled to come before the Choice and Innovation Subcommittee next week.

Lawmakers return for the 2023 legislative session in March.