With three weeks to go in the legislative session, there are more than 3,000 filed bills awaiting review while Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed less than 10 into law.
Something has got to give and that dam-break could begin this week in House and Senate sessions – there are 84 measures awaiting third-reading adoption on the House’s Wednesday floor schedule alone.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday let legislators know that among unfinished business he expects addressed over the final 21 days of the session is a merger of the House’s and Senate’s "Family Empowerment Scholarship" plans to increase school choice funding with his proposed "Equal Opportunity Scholarship."
"Nobody knows what’s better for the kids than their parent, and not every child has the same type of need," DeSantis told about 300 students, parents, educators and guests at Tampa Bay Christian Academy. "Florida is a big, diverse state, and parents should be in the driver’s seat."
Right now, 100,512 Florida students receive scholarships to attend 1,807 private schools across the state. Tuition 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.
DeSantis’ proposed "Equal Opportunity Scholarship" would grow the FTC to make students whose family household incomes exceed the federal poverty guideline up to 265 percent, up to $68,000, eligible for school choice vouchers.
He plans 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’ plan would grow FTC 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.
The House’s "Family Empowerment Scholarship," as outlined in House Bill 7075, calls for using general revenue dollars to pay for school choice voucher programs – the "third-rail" for opponents – creating 28,000 new scholarships that, eventually, would be available to students with family incomes of more than $96,000 a year.
Senate Bill 7070, the Senate’s proposed "Family Empowerment Scholarship," 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 – like the House proposal – earmark general fund revenues to supplement FTC revenues in paying for the vouchers.
DeSantis said the three plans all underscore the need to revise the FTC school-choice funding system, noting this is the first time in 14 years that it has been established that fundraising resulted in a waiting list.
"I believe our country is at its best when people, no matter where they start, can succeed and do great things with their God-given talent," DeSantis said. "Everyone can succeed. They just need the right opportunities."
According to Step-Up For Children, more than 148,000 students have started FTC school choice applications for the 2019-20 school year, and more than 96,000 scholarships have been awarded. About 56,000 are new applicants, up 45 percent from this time last year, the SFO reports.
Step Up in a Monday press release discussing DeSantis’ school choice push, cites eight studies that show school choice expansion would not only benefit students, but taxpayers.
"The value of the scholarship is 59 percent of per-pupil spending in district schools, and all eight independent fiscal impact analyses conclude the scholarship saves taxpayer money that can be re-invested in public schools," it says. "The proposed new scholarships would be worth about two-thirds of per-pupil spending in district schools."