Nonprofit estimates 'universal school choice' could cost Florida billions

'I think that our numbers are very reasonable and, in fact, conservative,' FPI senior policy analyst Norín Dollard says
Posted at 6:48 PM, Mar 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-01 18:48:54-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Florida nonprofit is warning Republican plans for universal school choice could cost the state billions in the first year alone.

Florida Policy Institute offered its findings Wednesday, which contradict the state's dramatically lower estimates.

The price tag has loomed large from the moment state Republicans announced their bill to open up school vouchers to all Florida students — regardless of ability, income or status. House Speaker Paul Renner made the change one of his top goals for this year's legislative session.

"This is about fully customizing education," Renner said last month, "which, in turn, allows children to reach their full potential."

During a virtual press conference, FPI researchers said the tab for taxpayers could be very hefty.

"Our estimates are $4 billion for next year," FPI senior policy analyst Norín Dollard, Ph.D., said. "I think that our numbers are very reasonable and, in fact, conservative."

The nonpartisan group's assessment is about 19 times what the state believes the legislation will cost, about $210 million, according to the Florida House analysis.

"It is really hard to know what the impetus was for such a low estimate," Mary McKillip, Ph.D., a senior researcher at the Education Law Center who helped create the FPI report, said. "That just really doesn't seem to account for most of the assumptions that we've pulled in."

FPI's numbers widely differ because researchers think public school districts will have to make up costs for every student switching to private institutions — taking tax dollars with them.

Plus, based on research from a comparable voucher program in Arizona, a "substantial" number of families already paying private tuition would likely take advantage of the expanded program, including homeschoolers. Those families can get access to an education savings account.

We asked the Senate sponsor about the potential of high costs last week.

Sen. Corey Simon's, R-Tallahassee, said the bill is similar to the House version but lacks a state estimate. He didn't speculate what that figure could be.

"We just want to make sure that the dollars are following the child," Simon said. "And the child gets the best education that they possibly can, with parents' input."

The uncertainty is a nonstarter for many Democrats. In committees, numerous have voted against the bill over concerns it's too expensive or would draw vital funds from public education.

Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, worried the state was writing a "blank check" with public dollars.

"The taxpayers deserve to know what their tax dollars are being used for," Jones said Wednesday.

With GOP supermajorities in both chambers, the bills continue to clear committees and are likely to reach chamber floors after the session begins next week.

We contacted the House and Senate leadership for comment on FPI's large price tag. As of Wednesday afternoon, we had yet to receive a statement.