Florida—already home to a thriving ecosystem of vouchers—is making a new run at expanding the numbers of families who are eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers to send their children to private school.
At the same time, the state’s still-new vouchers for bullied students are causing confusion among school district leaders even as demand for them has fallen way short of expectations in the program’s first year.
Lawmakers are making a full-court press to extend vouchers to thousands of new students, including many from middle-class families. Legislation to make that a reality is circulating in the Florida legislature, and with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch ally of vouchers at the helm, school choice supporters are feeling optimistic about its prospects.
And three of the state’s more-liberal justices reached their term limits, giving DeSantis an opportunity to appoint a new conservative majority to the state supreme court.
“For years, Florida has been advancing public and private school choice options for parents, but for the first time though, there is an opportunity to think much more broadly about what those options are,” said Patricia Levesque, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an influential group that advocates for school choice.
The most ambitious move is a bill proposed in the House to create Family Empowerment Scholarships, which would raise the income eligibility for families to receive state funding to send their children to private school. The income cap for participation would peak at $96,000 a year for a family of four. The proposal would subsidize tuition for up to an additional 28,000 students to attend private schools.
The Senate version is more modest. It would create up to 15,000 vouchers and cap income eligibility at roughly $66,000 a year.
While there are significant differences between the House and Senate bills, some version of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program is expected to pass as the idea has support from House and Senate leadership as well as the governor.
But any proposed expansion of vouchers will likely meet with opposition from the state’s largest teachers’ union, which has been the case with nearly every state effort to expand vouchers.
“We are anticipating them moving forward and we will do what we have to as an organization and if that means we have to go to court, we will,” said Fedrick Ingram, the president of the Florida Education Association.
The FEA led the charge against the state’s first voucher program and won, back in 2006. But the union’s track record in challenging later iterations of that program has not been so successful.
The union has fought both vouchers and charter schools largely on the grounds that they siphon money away from regular district schools and create a separate system of education when the state’s constitution calls for a uniform, public one.
“It’s a false competition and it’s a false choice,” said Ingram.
“All public schools have certified teachers. All private schools do not. All public schools have a state test, whether we like it or not; private schools do not,” he said. “We have a system of Florida standards that we have to adhere to, whether we agree on the merits or not; private schools do not.”
One recent poll shows popular opinion is on the side of school choice advocates.
Florida Atlantic University polled registered voters in March and found that 52 percent supported expanding vouchers to include middle-income families while only 29 percent opposed the idea. The most supportive age group was 18- to 29-year-olds, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.
Demand for the state’s existing vouchers remains high, according to Step Up for Students, the state’s largest administrator of vouchers. The group says 13,000 students are on the waiting list for the state’s tax credit scholarships. However, overall enrollment has dropped since last year, in part, because corporate donations are down and Step Up says it can’t afford to send as many students to private schools.
The state offers a dollar-for-dollar tax credit to corporations that donate to the program.
Requirements Cause Confusion
Meanwhile, a program created last year that offers, among other things, vouchers to students who are bullied in their public schools, has had a slow start.
Called Hope Scholarships, the program draws on sales tax revenues on new cars to help pay for eligible students to attend private school. Car buyers are given an option to direct some of the taxes they would pay on new vehicles to the Hope Scholarships.
Although Florida officials projected as many as 7,000 students would participate this school year, only a little more than 200 students have been awarded scholarships. Some school districts have raised concerns over whether families can receive a voucher even if their child was not bullied.
When a student complains of bullying, state law requires schools to investigate the incident. The new voucher law requires districts to notify the parents of the student who claimed to be bullied that they have the option to apply for the special voucher.
What’s confusing some districts is whether an investigation must conclude that bullying occurred before a student is eligible for the voucher, said Brian Moore, a lawyer for the Alachua County schools. His district decided to note on the form if a claim could not be verified.
"[I]t is not up to us to decide how the scholarship funding organizations process the forms,” Moore said in an email to Education Week. “On the other hand, we also don’t want to create records that say an incident of bullying occurred ... if it did not actually happen.”
The Florida education department issued a directive last month saying districts must inform families of the voucher program even if the bullying claim cannot be substantiated.
While the vouchers for bullied students haven’t gained widespread traction, that doesn’t mean the program won’t eventually flourish, said Levesque. She pointed to Florida’s voucher program for students with disabilities launched in 1999.
“It started as a pilot project in one county in Sarasota, and in the first year, only two students participated,” she said. “Now there are about 31,000 students participating in the program.”
Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Fla. Lawmakers Push to Extend Vouchers Into Middle Class