TALLAHASSEE, Fla --- Florida senators on Thursday passed legislation that would allow more students to use taxpayer-funded scholarships to pay for private-school tuition, a major step toward expanding school choice in the state.
Voting 23-17 along party lines, the Senate signed off on a wide-ranging education proposal that would also restructure a controversial teacher-bonus program, tweak other voucher-type scholarship programs and make it cheaper for teachers to get certified by the state.
The Senate measure would create a new voucher-type program, dubbed the “Family Empowerment Scholarship” program, which could provide vouchers to pay for up to 18,000 students to attend private schools.
Democrats have vigorously opposed the new program, branding it a “continual nail in the coffin of our public education system,” while Republicans praised the proposal as a “bold” push to help the individual needs of students.
“When we talk about our public education, we need to be talking about the individual student and not the collective,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, the sponsor of the bill (SB 7070). “If one student --- one individual student --- is not receiving the education that they need to be a productive citizen and uphold the republic, we have not done our jobs.”
Passage of the legislation fulfills portions of the education agenda of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is pushing to expand taxpayer-funded school-choice programs.
“For me, if the taxpayer is paying for the education, it’s public education,” DeSantis said when he announced his education proposal earlier this year.
Mirroring DeSantis' wishes, the Senate plan would add a fifth voucher-type program to other programs already operating in the state.
Late last week, the number of students who would be eligible to receive the new scholarship grew when a key Senate panel increased the income eligibility to include middle-class families of four that earn a little over $77,000 a year.
Priority will still be given to low-income families, as the Senate originally intended, according to Diaz. The eligibility change is an effort to move closer to a similar House proposal, as lawmakers seek to finalize their work before the legislative session concludes on May 3.
“It’s a little bit of a compromise,” Diaz told the News Service of Florida. “It’s semantics and details on where you land the plane, but it’s on the comfort level of leaders in both chambers.”
The House and Senate plans would make the new program available to families whose incomes are up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level during the 2019-2020 school year --- a calculation that equates to $77,250 for a family of four.
Under the House plan, which is ready for a floor vote, the threshold would gradually increase, with a family of four making $96,572 eligible for the vouchers in the 2022-2023 school year.
During Thursday’s Senate debate on the measure, Democrats raised concerns that using taxpayer money to fund the new scholarship program would take money away from the state’s public education system.
“This Florida Family Empowerment Scholarship is expected to drain $126 million from our public education,” said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he believed courts will find the program is unconstitutional because state funds will be used to pay for private schools, which often include religious schools. The state Supreme Court in 2006 struck down a voucher program backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. But the court now has a more conservative majority of justices, and Diaz has said he is not concerned about potential legal challenges.
The measure also makes changes to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the state’s largest voucher-type program. The Senate plan would allow students to use up to $750 of their scholarship money for transportation costs within the district. Currently, students can use funds from the scholarship to pay for out-of-district transportation costs.
Under the current program, companies can receive tax credits for contributing money to non-profit organizations that, in turn, fund the scholarships.
Step Up for Students, one of the non-profit organizations that helps the state administer the voucher-type scholarships, collects roughly $9 million a year in that role, according to federal tax records.
The organization also reported last year that it played a “prominent role” in swaying state lawmakers to create two new scholarship programs, including the Hope Scholarship, which helps bullied students attend private school.
The Hope Scholarship was created in 2018 at the behest of then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who now serves as the state’s education commissioner. A year later, there are only 68 students registered in the program, according to figures provided by the Florida Department of Education.
Step Up For Students is currently the only non-profit organization that has handed out the Hope Scholarships to bullied students.
Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram blasted the sweeping education plan, saying the new scholarship program “will divert hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars from our neighborhood public schools.”
“It’s clear that this expansion of vouchers is not about what it is best for students, but what is best for private schools and for scholarship funding organizations,” Ingram said in a press release.
Aside from an expansion of voucher programs, the Senate bill also includes provisions dealing with teachers.
The proposal would make it cheaper for prospective teachers to retake a certification exam and would restructure the controversial “Best and Brightest” teacher-bonus program.
The plan would create a new one-time recruitment bonus for teachers and principals in an effort to attract better candidates. The legislation also creates a retention bonus for teachers who have demonstrated academic improvement in their classrooms, and eliminates the current requirements for top ACT or SAT scores.
But Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat, said he is concerned that, unlike salary increases, teacher bonuses do not have an impact on educators' pension plans.
"When you retire, you retire on a system based on how much you earned," he said. "The bottom line is, what do you take home when you dedicated yourself 25 years or 30 years to get that pension to live your golden years on?"