By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Republican legislative leaders are lauding a sweeping school-choice measure filed Thursday, while Senate Democrats have vowed to “fight like hell” against the proposal.
The legislation, filed by Republican Sen. Manny Diaz of Hialeah, would expand eligibility for school-voucher programs, consolidate existing school-choice programs and allow parents to use taxpayer-backed education savings accounts for private schools and other costs.
“Using funds Florida taxpayers have already dedicated to education, this legislation consolidates our scholarship programs to make it clear what options are available to parents, and expands eligibility to provide more options to more low income families and families with a child with unique abilities,” Diaz wrote in a press release on Thursday.
Diaz’s proposal (SB 48) would expand the existing Family Empowerment Scholarship, which currently serves middle- and low-income students, in part by combining it with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Under the Tax Credit Scholarship program, businesses receive tax credits for contributing money to nonprofit organizations that, in turn, provide scholarships to students to attend private schools.
Diaz’s measure would also fold the Hope Scholarship program, which allows bullied students to switch to different public schools or use taxpayer funds to pay for private schools, into the Family Empowerment Scholarship.
The Senate proposal also would establish the “Gardiner-McKay Scholarship,” by combining two existing voucher programs that serve students with special needs.
Diaz’s plan would result in the consolidation of five of the state’s existing major school-voucher programs into two programs.
The proposal would establish what are known as education savings accounts for eligible students, which could be used for a wide array of education-related costs and services, including private-school tuition, tutoring, digital devices, and internet access.
Proponents of Diaz’s bill maintain that it would make it easier for parents to navigate the state’s complex school-voucher system.
The state currently has “a pretty confusing system of scholarship programs with various eligibility and funding mechanisms,” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said in a press release on Thursday.
“This patchwork system is largely the result of years of legal challenges from school choice opponents who have attempted to thwart every effort to actually give parents a say in how their children are educated,” he said.
Diaz’s legislation also garnered praise from former Gov. Jeb Bush, who was an architect of school vouchers in Florida.
“Let’s keep expanding access to learning options – #Florida families want and deserve it,” Bush tweeted.
Step Up for Students, a nonprofit organization that helps administer two of the state’s existing voucher programs, also is backing Diaz’s proposal.
“We support the Senate’s efforts to streamline these programs and give families the flexibility they need to meet each child’s safety and academic needs,” Step Up for Students president Doug Tuthill said in a prepared statement.
Senate Democrats, who learned of Diaz’s plan prior to Thursday’s release of the legislation, discussed the proposed voucher bill during a caucus meeting earlier this week.
The Democrats expressed fear that Diaz’s proposal would shift Florida’s public schools toward a universal school-choice system.
Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, told his colleagues that one of his aides told him about the bill early this week.
“This is a huge, huge problem that they’re about to do this in a COVID year, with all the budget constraints,” Jones, who is vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said during Tuesday’s Democratic caucus meeting. “We’re going to have to fight like hell on this one.”
The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, also opposes the measure.
“What the world has learned during this pandemic is the importance of public schools to a functioning society, but one of the first bills out the gate this year in Florida undercuts public education. Parents want lawmakers to invest in and support public schools. This bill does the opposite, and would drain away more resources from the schools that educate the great majority of our state’s children,” FEA president Andrew Spar said in a prepared statement.