House Doubles Down on DeSantis’, Senate School-Choice Expansion Plans

Ron DeSantis
Ron DeSantis / Getty Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Senate leaders both proposed plans to significantly grow Florida’s school choice programs — already the nation’s largest — before the 2019 legislative session began on March 5.

Two weeks into the 60-day session, the House has crafted its own proposed expansion, doubling down – literally – on the governor’s and Senate’s plans by creating 28,000 new scholarships that, eventually, would be available to students with family incomes of more than $96,000 a year.

The House Education Committee has approved a committee bill, PCB EDC 19-01, that would create a new Family Empowerment Scholarship voucher program in a 15-2 vote.

The measure was filed as House Bill 7075 Friday and awaits committee assignments.

HB 7075 is significantly broader than its Senate counterpart, Senate Bill 7070, but like the senior chamber’s version and unlike DeSantis’s proposal, it calls for using general revenue dollars to pay for school choice voucher programs.

Right now, 100,512 Florida students receive scholarships to attend 1,807 private schools across the state, but those vouchers are paid for through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC).

The FTC was created in 2001 and allows taxpayers to make private, voluntary contributions to non-profit scholarship-funding organizations (SFOs) that can then be awarded as scholarships to eligible students for private school tuition. It is mostly funded through corporate donations.

The FTC scholarship program – capped at $873 million this year – is administered by Step Up For Students, a non-profit SFO created by the Legislature.

According to Step Up, two-thirds of the students who received scholarships last year – more than 70,000 – are African American or Hispanic with an average household income of $25,756. The federal poverty guideline is $25,750 for a family of four.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said that, if signed into law, HB 7075’s Family Empowerment Scholarship program would create about 28,000 additional scholarships for the 2019-20 school year, far exceeding the annual FTC caps.

The program would eventually be open, within several years, to families of four with incomes of more than $96,000 a year.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said he can afford to pay his children’s tuition to a school he wants them to attend, but not every parent can do so.

"It is a crime that not every parent has the same choice that I do," Fine said.

The bill’s proposed expansion of school choice brought tears to Rep. Byron Donalds’ eyes. The Naples Republican and his wife, Erika Donalds, have been outspoken school choice advocates for several years.

"Parents, we are going to be here for you because they are your children, they are not the state’s children and they are not the school district’s children," Donalds said.

SB 7070, meanwhile, was created and approved March 6 by the Senate Education Committee in a 5-3 vote. It goes before the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday (March 19).

SB 7070 would create the proposed "Family Empowerment Scholarship," which would expand eligibility to students with household incomes exceeding the federal poverty guideline by up to 260 percent – $67,000 for a family of four.

It would be capped at 15,000 students statewide "with the ability to grow as the overall public school student population grows" and earmark general fund revenues to supplement FTC revenues in paying for the vouchers.

DeSantis’ proposed "Equal Opportunity Scholarship" would grow the FTC scholarship program rather than use general fund money to make students whose family household incomes exceed the federal poverty guideline by up to 265 percent, up to $68,000, eligible for school choice vouchers.

His plan is to pump about $100 million into the FTC program to add at least 14,000 students in the coming year. He also wants to increase spending for the Gardiner Scholarship Program, for special needs students, by at least $18 million.

After the 2019-20 school year, DeSantis’ proposed FTC school choice plan would grow each year by 1 percent of Florida’s total public school student population, which is now 2.8 million, meaning about 28,000 additional children would be eligible if it was in place this year.

Most of the specifics in DeSantis’ proposal are incorporated into SB 7070.

The Florida Democratic Party has blasted DeSantis’ and the Senate’s proposals, questioning if it is constitutional to use tax dollars for the new programs, noting the state Supreme Court in 2006 struck down a voucher program backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Its response to the new House bill was no different.

"House Republicans are abusing the legislative process to rush this bill through because they know it would never hold up under sustained scrutiny," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Kevin Donohoe said in a statement.