As Florida voucher plan advances, critics worry it could 'cause segregation' in schools
Florida lawmakers continue to work on a voucher plan for all students to pay tuition at private schools while educators and parents protest about the cost and lack of accountability for how tax dollars are spent.
The proposal is on a fast track to Gov. Ron DeSantis after both House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo endorsed it in session opening day speeches Tuesday.
Committees in both the House and Senate cleared the measure and it is one stop away from floor debate in both chambers, while sponsors work out the differences in the two proposals.
The House Education & Workforce Committee agreed Wednesday to incorporate a Democratic amendment that lines up HB 1 with its Senate companion SB 202, at Friday’s Education Quality Subcommittee.
Moving forward:School choice bill advances in Florida Senate with a promise of changes to come
The cost:House puts price tag on universal school voucher plan critics find hard to believe
His stamp on the bill:Florida Sen. Corey Simon seeks universal vouchers for public, private schools
The amendment by Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, mandates the state Board of Education to do a complete review of education regulations and recommend repeal of laws so public schools can better compete in a “school choice” market.
It is a pathway to a “level playing field” with charter and private schools that public school superintendents have long sought.
The review was inserted into the push by Republican leadership for universal vouchers by Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee.
While Valdes negotiated with HB 1 sponsor, Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, and committee chair Rep. Ralph Massulo, R-Lecanto, on how to reconcile the two bills, Simon was brushing off allegations from Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, that the GOP universal voucher plan was “a pig in a poke, ” slang for something of unknown quality.
Thompson was irritated that an appropriations committee was being asked to vote on a spending bill without a price tag.
Thompson said she asked for a cost estimate and got no answer, and when she asked if universal vouchers would lead to a segregated school system she was told “we don’t have data."
“We’re being asked to vote on something, and we don’t even know what the implications are and what it is going to mean,” said Thompson.
There are 2.9 million students who would become eligible for one of three scholarships programs offering nearly $8,000 to attend a private school.
State economists are calculating the cost for the chambers’ appropriation committees.
The House estimates the final tab will be around $210 million. A Florida policy group estimates it to be around $4 billion.
Simon counters opponents who charged that the plan takes money away from public education don’t want to address the fact that families of private school students pay property taxes that fund public education.
“Those dollars go to the school district. Those dollars fund buildings. They fund teachers. Those dollars are already going back into the school even though that particular family isn’t utilizing the public school,” said Simon.
Teachers and parents warned the panel that the scholarships do not cover the full cost of private school attendance and thus will serve as a subsidy for more affluent families and leave lower-level income students in schools with depleted resources.
Private School Review pegs the average private school tuition in Florida at $10,003.
Ellen Baker is a Palm Beach County teacher and said when she first moved from Connecticut she placed her son in a private school – but she adds, it was her choice, at her expense, not the state’s.
Baker predicted, if approved, the proposal will lead to two school systems in Florida.
“My high school is going to get the kids whose parents are not aware of this and don’t have the ability to advocate for them. This bill is going to cause segregation – we're going backwards,” said Baker.
Megan Young teaches in Duval County and told the panel there is no true choice in a universal voucher plan without requirement for voucher schools to publish their graduation rate, teacher certifications, and what advance courses and career technical programs they offer, along with services for disabilities, and the cost of extra-curricular activities.
“If you really want to provide meaningful choice then you must hold all schools accountable for sharing pertinent information with parents and community stakeholders,” said Young.
After the education subcommittee voted 9-4 along party lines to send the bill to the full Appropriations Committee, Simon said he hopes to have an estimate on how much the plan will cost for the next hearing.
“I'd rather be right than just be fast. I want to make sure that those numbers are right at the end of the day,” said Simon, adding that he is also willing to amend the proposal up to a point to address critics' concerns.
The House Education & Workforce Committee cleared HB 1 on a 16-4 vote. HB 1’s final committee stop is Friday, when Valdes’ amendment to align it with SB 202 will be considered.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahasse