DeSantis signs major school voucher expansion in Florida, amid cost questions
TALLAHASSEE – One of the largest private school voucher expansions in the nation was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who hailed it as a “game changer,” even as the overall cost of the move remains clouded.
DeSantis signed the measure (HB 1) into law Monday at a private, all-boys Catholic high school in Miami.
The legislation makes all Florida students eligible for taxpayer-financed vouchers to attend private schools – a roughly $8,500 award which Democrats deride as a taxpayer supplement to wealthier parents with kids already enrolled in private education.
Christopher Columbus High School, where Education Commissioner Manny Diaz noted that his son is a 2016 graduate, carries a $15,400 cost for tuition, fees and textbooks next year, according to its website.
DeSantis and Florida’s ruling Republicans, however, praise the “universal school choice” approach. With the governor a likely contender for the GOP presidential nomination, the voucher expansion is another policy step certain to appeal to Republican voters across the nation.
“The state of Florida is number one when it comes to education freedom and education choice,” DeSantis said. “Today’s bill signing cements us in that number one position.”
The expansion sped hastily through the Republican-controlled House and Senate, where House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, had made the push his top priority. For weeks during the session, the House estimated the cost of the expansion as $209.6 million to public schools, while a Senate analysis had tagged it at $646 million.
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The Florida Policy Institute, a progressive research organization, had said the real cost of private school vouchers for taxpayers would prove more around $4 billion.
Apparently acknowledging that its earlier cost estimate could be off, in its state budget proposal unveiled last week, the Senate now is recommending setting aside $2.2 billion for private school voucher spending.
“There is concern that the voucher programs are getting too expensive,” House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell of Tampa said Monday.
Other states move forward with universal choice
Arizona and Iowa are among the states that have recently embraced universal voucher programs. Arizona underestimated its overall cost, which soared when more parents with children already in private schools accepted the state aid than had been anticipated.
“This could be devastating to Florida public schools,” Driskell added, saying that Florida is now financing two educational systems, private and public.
Renner, however, said that giving parents the choice to send children to whichever kind of school they want will make all schools improve. Florida's 2.9 million school children would be eligible to use the average $8,500 per-pupil in state and local dollars proposed for next year at any school they like.
“You’re going to see great, great things in education in Florida as a result of this bill,” said Renner, who joined DeSantis at the Miami bill-signing.
The Florida Policy Institute, though, warned the expansion not only is a massive shift of public dollars, it also will upend an institution -- public education.
"The potential impact on the funding for public education in our state — the bedrock for our communities, economy, and children's futures — is a looming risk to our state," said Sadaf Knight, CEO of the Florida Policy Institute.
Florida has steadily expanded its private school vouchers over the two decades since then-Gov. Jeb Bush introduced the first-in-the-nation “Opportunity Scholarship” program for low-income students in 1999.
Vouchers once overturned by court
That program was later overturned by the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled it violated the state constitution’s requirement that Florida have a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.”
But changes to the law – and subsequent court rulings – have opened the door to the latest expansion.
“This bill is a major game changer,” DeSantis said. He added, “It’s not just about philosophy, although it certainly involves that. It’s results.”
DeSantis pointed to the state’s strong performances in 4th-grade reading and math scores. He also hailed the state’s high rankings with the Center for Education Reform and the Heritage Foundations, organizations that advocate for school choice.
The legislation removes income-eligibility requirements that are part of current voucher programs. Instead, students would be eligible to receive vouchers if they are a “resident of this state” and “eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12” in a public school.
A tiered priority system would be included to help students from families with more modest incomes to receive vouchers. Students whose household incomes are less than 185% of the federal poverty level, or roughly $51,000 for a family of four, would get first priority, with the priority scale ranging up to four-member families with a $111,000 income.
Home-schooled students could receive voucher funds. And the legislation promises a reduction in state regulations over public schools, which supporters say will make public schools more attractive to parents.
DeSantis portrayed a free market competition for students between private and public schools.
“They either offer a product that parents want or they don’t,” he said.
John Kennedy is part of USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport.
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: DeSantis signs Florida's biggest - and costliest - voucher expansion