TAMPA, Fla. — Nearly three dozen Florida education advocates and nonprofits are demanding the state be more transparent about Florida's newly expanded universal school voucher program.
According to the Florida Policy Institute, more than 410,000 school vouchers have been awarded since the Legislature expanded the program this year to allow any family, regardless of income, to participate.
The state's K-12 voucher program helps supplement the costs of sending children to private school or help parents pay for homeschooling their children. The controversial bill went into effect on July 1 and removed the previous income cap, which limited participation to families whose income level was 375% of the federal poverty level.
In a letter sent to Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz on Wednesday, the Florida Policy Institute, along with 30 other nonprofits, education advocates and faith-based organizations, called on the commissioner to release more information about the taxpayer-funded program.
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The groups said the state is withholding critical information, including details about the characteristics and income level of families awarded vouchers, how many of these families are using the money to send their children to private school and what the state plans to do if costs exceed the program’s estimated $4 billion budget.
Recently, we learned some of the state's allowable expenses under the program include items such as kayaks, paddleboards, big-screen televisions and theme park tickets.
"We're allowing voucher students to be used for kayaks and paddleboards and theme park tickets," Damaris Allen with Families for Strong Public Schools said. "We would be outraged if public schools used their tax money for these purposes. We should hold them accountable in the same way. These are our hard-earned tax dollars."
"I can't underscore the need for transparency," Dr. Norín Dollard with the Florida Policy Institute, who also wants to know how the state plans to sustain the program long-term, said.
Dollard said Florida families awarded a school voucher are getting on average about $8,000 per child under the program.
Scripps contacted Florida's Department of Education for comment and received this statement from spokeswoman Cailey Myers:
The Florida Policy Institute’s concerns are unfounded. The Department is ensuring the scholarship programs are implemented in accordance with HB 1 and the funding provided in the General Appropriations Act.
In addition, their claims that the Department has not been transparent about the scholarship process is ridiculous. The Department published a press release on August 18 detailing that over 407,000 students had been awarded a scholarship. The release celebrated the record number of students applying to participate in the state scholarship programs and the families who will be positively impacted. Feigning outrage that the specific data has not been made public less than month after school started is disingenuous. It takes time to process comprehensive reports, and our data will be available on our website when it is complete.
As part of HB 1, the Department of Education is dedicated to providing increased access and flexibility for state scholarship programs to meet the needs of all families, including those providing personalized education programs. We want families to be able to choose the best educational path for their children, and FPI should support Florida’s number one ranked education system instead of playing political games."