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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

DeSantis signed a massive school voucher expansion into law. Here's what parents need to know

Ron DeSantis signing the bill, sitting at a desk, surrounded by children
Gov. Ron DeSantis
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Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the school voucher bill on March 27, 2023.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that will expand school vouchers and school choice. Here's what it means.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed House Bill 1, a major expansion of Florida's Family Empowerment Scholarship, into law.

It removes income restrictions and enrollment limits, allowing essentially any Florida household with a student in elementary, middle or high school to receive a school voucher containing the amount that their local public school would have received if they had attended.

The voucher can be used to pay for private school tuition, for homeschooling resources (if homeschooling parents are willing to abide by state guidelines) or, because of new "education savings accounts," to pay for other school-related costs.

It also follow's Florida's efforts to expand school choice.

Here's what parents need to know about the expansion.

Who is eligible?

According to a news release issued by DeSantis, every student in Florida may be affected by this change.

A pamphlet released by DeSantis' office touts the legislation as "expanding school choice to all Florida families."

It says the law will eliminate financial eligibility requirements and the enrollment cap on the number of families who can participate in the preexisting Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options.

The law further specifies that priority in receiving these scholarship funds will be given to students whose household income does not exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or who are in foster or out-of-home care.

The federal poverty level for 2023 is sorted by how many family members are in a household. For a family of five, the poverty level income is $35,140.

Students who enroll in public school won't receive scholarships, as the money allotted to these students will be given to their public school programs.

How much will it cost?

Research agencies, including the Education Law Center, estimate the law will cost Florida taxpayers $4 billion. Opponents fear that much of this sum will be cut from an already under-resourced public school system.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship currently only provides funding for low-income students to attend private schools, which costs the state an estimated $1.5 billion per year.

The added costs are in large part due to the lifting of the low-income restriction on who can receive these scholarships.

Some lawmakers expressed concerns about the scholarship's cost to the state now that the very wealthy can also cash in, citing budget blowouts in states with similar legislation.

The Republicans in the state legislature who sponsored the bill say that they are waiting on the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research to provide an estimate.

What is an "education savings account?"

If a student is enrolled — or in the process of enrolling — in a private school, religious school, or approved homeschooling nonprofit program, but the family does not need a voucher at the time it is received, the voucher can be placed in an education savings account.

Up to $24,000 can be saved in this account until it expires when a student turns 21, receives a high school diploma, or attends a public school.

These accounts would also allow voucher money to be spent on other approved, school-related expenses besides tuition.

Some other expenses these accounts may cover include instructional digital materials and internet resources, full- or part-time enrollment in college as a part of a dual-enrollment program, fees for standardized tests, pre-professional tests and other testing, individual classes at a public school, and tutoring.

For students with disabilities, the list expands to include assistive technology devices, specialized hospital services including applied behavioral analysis, speech-language pathology, occupational therapy, physical therapy and services performed by listening and spoken language specialists, contributions to a Florida Prepaid College fund, specialized summer education programs, progress evaluations by state-certified teachers, certain therapy animal services and music or art therapy, and voluntary preschool.

The reaction

Opponents cite the dramatic cost increase that the expansion will add, as well as the negative impact it may have on public schools.

“Florida’s families overwhelmingly count on their neighborhood public schools as the best place for their children to get the education they deserve and need," said Florida Education Assosciation President Andrew Spar in a release. "HB1 will siphon billions away from the schools where nearly 90 percent of Florida’s students learn and grow. This bill will leave children with fewer resources in their already underfunded classrooms and fewer teachers and staff to meet their needs. Sending tax dollars to unaccountable, corporate-run private schools is just wrong. This bill is a political priority of a governor who puts his political ambition ahead of Florida’s families.”

Spar refers to the idea that much of the controversial legislation Republicans have introduced in this month's legislative session, especially regarding education, is a part of an attempt by DeSantis to garner national attention within the GOP leading up to the 2024 presidential election.

“Our suspicion is that he wants to get as many of his priorities out of the way so that they will already be passed, and perhaps he can even sign them into law before he makes his announcement and actually files to run for president,” said House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.

Proponents say that the voucher can be used to offer parents a choice in where to send their children to school by giving them a leg up on private school tuition and other educational costs.

Republicans cite issues like religious freedom in supporting school choice.

“Educational choice also means you have the ability to have your child go somewhere where they learn all the basics, but they also have their values and their faith respected. And that’s also very important,” said House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast.

When will it go into effect?

The legislation will go into effect July 1, so eligible students and parents will be able to use the voucher for the upcoming school year.

Joanna Keen is the WUSF Stephen Noble Digital News intern for spring of 2023.
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