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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Democrats Fail To Slow Advancement Of Republicans' School Voucher Merger Bill

empty desks with students at desks in background

It would have merged the state's five school choice programs into two — a proposal backed by Republicans.

Democratic efforts to slow a planned consolidation of the state's school choice programs failed Thursday. The proposal would merge the state's five school choice programs into two, and transform them into education savings accounts. The measure is a top priority for Republicans.

The Senate’s Appropriations Committee is the last stop for the voucher merger bill before it goes to a full chamber vote. Still, how much the bill will cost remains unknown. Earlier this week, the state’s revenue estimating committee took up the proposal but hasn’t released cost estimates. For that reason, Senate minority leader Gary Farmer tried to cap enrollments in the program.

“…we’re going to allow for some growth here, but my concern is that we just don’t know what the fiscal impact is going to be," Farmer said.

That was shot down. Critics worry provisions to consulate the voucher programs and transform them into education savings accounts will sap more money from public education, but numerous court rulings on vouchers show they've managed to save the state money because they're funded at less than the state's per pupil spending rate. Republican bill sponsor, Senator Manny Diaz also notes the new, consolidated programs don't tap the state's primary public education funding mechanism.

“None of those funds go into this fund that funds this program," he said.

Instead, private scholarship organizations that receive corporate tax donations would deposit that money into a state trust fund that would then be used to give out the money in the form of education savings accounts. A bigger concern with the bill is that it could incentivize more parents to take their kids out of public schools or keep them from ever entering. It expands eligibility to home schooled and private school families.

Florida bases part of its education funding formula on enrollment, and if enrollment goes down, so does funding. A common refrain has been that greater competition through private and charter schools makes public schools stronger, but Marie Claire Lehman, a Leon County parent with kids in public schools, doesn’t buy that.

“The marketplace will not be equitable. Families will get the same amount, not according to need…these ESA’s create a competitive playing field which creates inequities in quality K12 education," Lehman testified before the Senate's Appropriations committee.

And Monroe County School Board Member Sue Woltanski told lawmakers she's concerned the planned education savings accounts will be used on things only tangentially related to education.

“Current ESA recipients can get pre-approved apple watches, TV's and gaming consoles. Of course, families can always choose to purchase tuition…or if they’re home-schooled, they can choose to purchase curriculum, but neither of those things are required.”

Diaz has called Senate Bill 48 his top priority. The pandemic, he says, has brought parents closer to their child’s education and some may not like what they’re seeing. The proposal is geared toward making it easier for parents to navigate the state’s myriad school choice programs.

"Everything has changed with COVID. And parents are more intent on being involved and having flexibility with their student’s education. And what this does is it really brings that to fruition and gives them the opportunity to handle that," he said in a previous interview about the bill with WFSU.

The expansion of education savings accounts has long been a dream for the state’s largest corporate tax scholarship provider, Step Up For Students. With partisan approval from the Senate’s Appropriations Committee, it’s getting closer to becoming a reality.
Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.org.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.
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