Florida's plan for 'universal school choice' hits Republican concerns in Senate

'There are places where we can make this product a little stronger,' Sen. Erin Grall says
Posted at 7:27 PM, Feb 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-21 19:27:15-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's GOP plan for "universal school choice" has run into concerns from fellow Republicans.

The bill, which cleared its first Senate committee Tuesday, opens up vouchers for private schools to any student, regardless of ability or income level. Though changes may come after at least one Republican gave the legislation a tentative "yes."

"There are places where we can make this product a little stronger," Sen. Erin Grall, R-Fort Pierce, said.

In debate, Grall said she liked the bill concept but felt it needed more transparency for private facilities. She wanted to ensure easy public access to a private school's curriculum, testing or scoring.

"To make it easy for parents to see how that school has performed— not only among other private schools in their community but also among the public school options that are available," Grall said.

Democrats had similar issues. Some also questioned the unknown price tag of the bill, which might be sizable. Some estimate a figure as high as $4 billion, though supporters dismissed that number.

"It almost looks as though we are putting forth a blank check," Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, said.

Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, went further in her criticism, warning the policy "could be a death knell for public schools." She worried opening vouchers to all of Florida's K-12 students would not only divert dollars from public schools but give them to families that already afford private education.

"We have the example of what happened in Arizona," Berman said. "Eighty percent of the money that they did goes to ... families that are already paying private school tuition. That is not good stewardship of our money."

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, took the objections in stride. He called Tuesday's vote "a win for parents, families, and young people."

In a brief press gathering after the hearing, Simon said he was open to changes, though the freshmen lawmaker declined to say how many or what kind.

"All parties involved are looking through ways to make it better," Simon said. "We'll continue that line of communication, and as it moves, this bill will get better over time."

There is still plenty of that time remaining. The 60-day lawmaking session officially gavels in on March 7.

Both the House and Senate versions of the school choice bill have two remaining committee stops before reaching chamber floors.