By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Two decades after then-Gov. Jeb Bush started a broad push for school choice, the Florida House on Tuesday approved a closely watched expansion that will provide vouchers to thousands of children to attend private schools.
As a sign of the significance of the bill (SB 7070), Bush made a rare appearance in the Capitol and was seated on the House floor for the vote. He was flanked by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, another longtime voucher supporter, and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill, which features the creation of the “Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.” Under that voucher program, state money will be used next year to pay for as many as 18,000 students to attend private schools, with the number of students slowly increasing in future years.
Supporters argued the bill, which passed the Senate last week, would give parents the ability to choose the best schools for their children.
“Frankly, the time for political posturing is coming to an end, and now it’s time to do what is right for our middle-income and low-income families in the state of Florida,” House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said.
But many Democrats blasted the bill, saying it would strip money from public schools while requiring little accountability for private schools.
“If there are problems with our schools, let’s fix them,” Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said. “But we can’t abandon public schools and all of the children and families that rely on our public schools.”
Vouchers have long been one of the most-controversial issues in Florida’s education system — a controversy that accelerated after Bush was elected in 1998 with a platform that focused heavily on revamping the system. Since that time, tens of thousands of students have used voucher-type programs to attend private schools.
As an example, 108,098 students received what are known as tax-credit scholarships during the 2017-2018 school year, according to a Senate staff analysis. In that program, businesses receive tax credits for contributions they make to non-profit organizations. The organizations then use the contributions to provide voucher-like scholarships for largely low-income students to go to private schools.
The new Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, however, has crucial differences that have drawn heavy debate. In part, it would be funded directly by the state rather than through the more-indirect route of tax credits. Also, the new voucher would be available to families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level — which equates to $77,250 for a family of four.
Democratic opponents of the bill argued that the new program is unconstitutional, pointing to a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar voucher plan spearheaded by Bush. But Republicans disputed arguments about the constitutionality of the new program.
A wildcard could be three justices appointed to the Supreme Court this year by DeSantis. The appointments of justices Robert Luck, Barbara Lagoa and Carlos Muniz are widely viewed as creating a conservative court majority that might be more amenable to issues such as school vouchers.
The bill passed Tuesday included a wide range of education issues, including changes that affect other school-choice programs. Also, it calls for revamping the long-controversial Best and Brightest teacher-bonus program.
But the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program was the focus of almost all of the debate before the House voted 76-39 to pass the measure. All Republicans voted for the bill and were joined by five Democrats: Rep. James Bush of Miami; Rep. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville; Rep. Wengay Newton of St. Petersburg; Rep. Susan Valdes of Tampa; and Rep. Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes.
After celebrating on the House floor after the vote, Bush left without speaking to reporters. But Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, an education organization founded by Bush, issued a statement praising the vote.
“The Family Empowerment Scholarship program builds upon two decades of nationally recognized progress in expanding quality educational options for Florida students,” she said.
But critics warned of taking money out of the public-school system and sending it to private schools.
“As a taxpayer, I think this is a waste of money,” Rep. John Cortes, D-Kissimmee, said. “We should be fixing our public schools with solutions, instead of making more problems.”
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.