Florida Legislature approves universal school vouchers bill

Tribune Content Agency

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Senate gave final approval Thursday to a bill creating universal school vouchers, and sent it to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his expected approval.

The Senate voted 26-12 along party lines to approve the bill (HB 1).

Republican state lawmakers, who hold a supermajority in the Legislature, want to open state voucher programs that currently provide scholarships to more than 252,000 children with disabilities or from low-income families to all of the 2.9 million school-age children in Florida, with an estimated cost ranging from $210 million to $4 billion in the first year.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples called it “one of the most transformative bills the Legislature has ever dealt with.”

“My (Democratic) colleagues are saying, ‘we know what’s best for your kids,”’ Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, said in defense of his bill. “What this bill does is we put that back in the parents’ hands.”

But opponents raised concerns about sweeping money out of the public school system and subsidizing private education, in some cases for children of wealthy parents.

“There is no money following the child like we hear over and over again because they were never in public school,” said Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville. “You can’t ever follow something that was never in public school.”

Private schools don’t follow the same academic standards as public schools and can set their own curriculum, they said, pointing out that they could be teaching neo-Nazism and the state couldn’t do anything to stop them.

Nor do they have to meet the same safety requirements as charter and public schools must do.

The state does not generally regulate private schools, so there are no requirements that teachers have college degrees or for standardized testing to grade the quality of the schools.

Private schools also don’t have to follow the same safety requirements as charter and public schools.

Democrats also objected to taxpayer dollars being sent to religious schools. About three out of four schools that receive vouchers are religious in nature.

“House Bill 1 further erodes the separation of church and state. Taxpayers are paying for Floridians to discriminate,” the League of Women Voters of Florida tweeted.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, said he found himself thinking more like a fiscal conservative when he saw such a huge price tag and no financial analysis from the state Department of Education.

“There is no agency analysis, that’s just poor stewardship,” Pizzo said. “For something to be so expensive screams not wanting to be accountable, not wanting benchmarks with a huge blank check.”

The bill would give any parent the choice to receive a voucher for their child to be used for private school tuition or homeschooling services and supplies — as long as that student was not enrolled in public school.

DeSantis has been a supporter of the programs, saying they reflect his goal to give parents more say over their children’s education.

Simon accused Democrats of caring more about their teacher union backers than the children and parents.

“They’re arguing for the system so the union can turn around and line their pockets come election time,” Simon said.