Florida lawmakers sent Gov. Ron DeSantis a Republican-crafted bill Tuesday to create a new voucher program for students to attend private and religious schools using taxpayer dollars traditionally spent on public schools.
The GOP-led House voted 76-39 largely along party lines to authorize the $130 million Family Empowerment Scholarship program after hours of debate over two days. It would be available to as many as 18,000 students in its first year, limited to families of four with annual incomes of $77,250 or below.
DeSantis is a strong supporter of what the GOP calls school choice efforts and is expected to sign the bill into law. Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who pushed for similar school voucher bills during his tenure, was in the House chamber for the vote.
“We’re making history today,” said Republican Rep. Jennifer Sullivan of Eustis, who chairs the House Education Committee. “It is not about public vs. private. It is about our students. We are giving parents real choice in this bill.”
Democrats contend the program would strip away money from cash-strapped public schools. They note that the Florida Supreme Court found a similar law unconstitutional in 2006 and claim this proposal would meet the same fate, although DeSantis has appointed three new justices with a far more conservative outlook than the previous court.
“The proponents of this legislation won’t be satisfied until our entire education system has been privatized,” said Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat. “These (vouchers) are slowly killing our traditional public schools.”
Sullivan said she expected the measure would survive a court challenge. “I don’t think it’s unconstitutional. That will ultimately be for the Supreme Court to decide,” she said.
Florida already has other voucher programs, including a tax break for businesses that provide private school scholarships for low-income students. Other programs provide vouchers for students with special needs, those who are disabled and those who are bullied. Thousands of students attend private schools through these programs, some of which have lengthy waiting lists.
The new voucher program would place priority on the students from the lowest-income families. All students in the program would be eligible until they graduate high school or turn 21, whichever comes first.
In addition to the vouchers, the bill modifies the “Best and Brightest” program that awards bonuses to the most effective classroom teachers and to principals based on a school’s academic improvement. It eliminates use of a teacher’s SAT or ACT scores as a factor in getting a bonus, according to a Senate staff analysis.
But it was the voucher part of the bill that attracted the most attention and debate, and there were a few Democrats who supported it. One was Rep. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville, who said she realized she was a “sore thumb that sticks out” in her party but noted that constituents in her urban district were in favor because many public schools are sub-standard.
“I believe there’s room for all types of schools and all types of education,” Daniels said.