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

Florida parents weigh in on how a universal school choice plan will impact them

Blue chairs stacked on top of desks in a classroom
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
Chairs are seated on top of the desks in an empty classroom after school at Sabal Palm Elementary (file photo)

Parents are weighing in on a plan to lift income caps from the state's school voucher program, enabling all families to become eligible for private school tuition stipends of funding for other education-related services.

Florida lawmakers have proposed bills to remove income caps from the state’s school voucher programs. That would make every school-aged child in the state eligible for a private school scholarship or to get funding for other education-related expenses. Parents are split on how the plan will benefit as well as affect their child’s education.

Scheime Den Burg is a father of six, with a son who has dyslexia and ADHD. Den Burg says the Florida Empowerment Scholarship program which is funded by state money has helped his son with his education.

“We right away applied for the FES-UA [unique abilities] scholarship and we were awarded,” said Den Burg.

“Thankfully, we were not stuck on a waiting list thank god. We were able to make sure that not only was part of his tuition paid for but more importantly we were able to get a reading specialist who specializes in children with dyslexia to enable him to start to learn how to read.”

Historically, most of the students who’ve used the state’s school voucher programs have been Black or Hispanic, and for years there’s been a waitlist as the program tends to run out of money due to rising demand. This year, Step Up For Students, the leading funder of private school tuition scholarships, has a waiting list of 9,500 families in need of funding for children with special needs.

Angela Reveret’s son has autism. She says he has benefitted from the family’s use of the Florida Empowerment Scholarship, which provided tuition assistance to send Reveret’s son to a private school.

“The blessing this scholarship and the ESA is why our son is thriving today. Only parents know what is best for their children. Every family should choose where their child is educated based on the individual needs and abilities. The flexibility of ESA gives more options and opportunities to Florida families,” Reveret said.

Valarie Licata, a mom of two, believes the vouchers have resulted in less support for the public schools in her community. Both of her kids are in public school and she believes the vouchers are compromising her children’s education. In Florida, money follows the student and when those kids leave public schools, the funding leaves with them.

“While universal vouchers on the surface expands choice and education, it does not expand the quality of my choices. This leaves me to choose multiple underfunded systems compromising my children’s education. The universal voucher program would only harm my community. We don’t have easily accessible private institutions yet are public schools are nestled within our neighborhood,” Licata, a Hillsborough County resident, said.

Meanwhile Tiffany Brave, a mother of three, believes public schools can provide more for students’ education and learning if more families had their kids attend them.

“We should be investing in our public schools to ensure that all students have access to high-quality education they deserve. Public schools provide a vital foundation for our democracy offering an equal opportunity for all students to learn and grow regardless of their background, income, or learning differences. This is an issue of equity for all students,” Brave said.

A cost estimate from the Florida House Of Representatives puts the cost of expanding the school voucher program at $210 million. An independent analysis by an outside group puts the cost at $4 billion.