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Voucher expansion shouldn’t harm public schools if funding stays separate, superintendent says

Kevin Hendrick wears a blue suit and green tie and speaks at the school board dais
Pinellas County Public Schools
Kevin Hendrick urged people not to fret about the effect of HB 1 on public schools, as long as legislators hold to their word of keeping funding separate.

Critics have raised concerns about the potential for 300,000 students to take advantage of the funding, while the schools they choose have no accountability to provide a quality education.

Florida has signed into law the largest expansion of private school vouchers in the state’s history, a costly endeavor that Governor Ron DeSantis has described as “the largest expansion of education choice not only in this state but in the history of the United States.”

Lawmakers in Tallahassee are still working out a plan to pay for the bill, known as HB 1, and critics have raised concerns about a price tag that could balloon to $4 billion, while other projections of the cost hover in the hundreds of millions.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, Pinellas County superintendent Kevin Hendrick said the law should not siphon money away from public schools.

READ MORE: Here's what parents need to know about school vouchers

“The family empowerment scholarships, which have been around for a long, long time in Florida have been expanded to almost all families in the state, up to 400% of the Federal Poverty Index, with priority to those at 185%,” Hendrick said.

"The biggest thing that we need to continue to remind ourselves is the cost of this, and keeping it outside of our traditional funding formula. So long as that cost stays outside the funding formula, which the legislature has said in its initial discussions, then it should have no impact on our schools in terms of a loss of funding," he added.

Hendrick also said he welcomed the competition with private schools and other school choice options.

“In terms of students leaving public schools, whether in Pinellas or other places, we have been in competition for decades now. That's why we've had our great magnet programs and things for many, many years. And we'll look forward to continuing that competition.”

The Florida Senate has proposed a plan that follows that "outside" funding source, setting aside $2.2 billion from rising property values to pay for HB 1 and creating separate categories for public schools and the voucher program.

The House's proposed budget would revamp the entire funding formula for public schools, keeping the voucher spending together with public school funding, and adding $110 million in reserves in case the voucher program exceeds current estimates.

House Democrats would like to see something closer to the Senate’s model, as it appears to have more in reserves for the universal voucher program.

The chambers need to agree on a final budget by the end of the annual legislative session, May 5th.

WFSU’s Kevin Del Orbe and News Service of Florida contributed reporting to this story.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.