TALLAHASSEE — A new private school voucher program that may defy state law but would also extend choice options to middle-income families for the first time was approved Tuesday by a Florida House, divided sharply along party lines.
The 76-39 House vote came just days after a similarly split Senate endorsed the Family Empowerment Scholarships. The measure (SB 7070) now goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it into law.
Most Democrats in the Legislature have blasted the voucher expansion as a threat to public schools.
The political shadings of the debate were underscored Tuesday, with former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush joining state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a former GOP state House speaker, on the House floor as the vote occurred.
Supporters, though, tried to downplay the partisan implications.
“This is not about public versus private,” said Education Committee Chair Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora. “This is about the future of the state of Florida.”
Still, Democrats derided the latest voucher program as favoring private and for-profit education over the state’s public school system, a trend which many say began under Bush.
“I’m not the first person to point out that proponents of this will not be satisfied until the entire public school system is privatized,” said Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee. “These are slowly killing our traditional public schools.”
Bush also could figure in the program’s future.
The Family Empowerment Scholarship directly steers taxpayer money to private schools, an approach invalidated in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court. At the time, justices ruled that Bush’s first-in-the-nation, statewide private school voucher program — which also used taxpayer dollars — violated the state constitution.
In that 5-2 ruling, justices said that giving children in the state’s lowest-rated public schools taxpayer money to attend private or parochial schools, “diverts public dollars into separate, private systems ... parallel to and in competition with the free public schools.”
The state's largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, is expected to likely organize a legal challenge to the program approved Tuesday.
Currently, the state’s other prominent voucher program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, avoids directly relying on taxpayer dollars. Instead, corporations draw a tax credit for steering money from any of six different state taxes to a scholarship funding organization.
A 13,000-student waiting list developed last year for these scholarships, and that helped inspire creation of the new Family Empowerment Scholarships.
Also, helping the effort along was the retirement of three of the justices who helped strike down Bush’s earlier voucher.
DeSantis in January replaced these justices with three conservative jurists who many expect could be willing to back away from the prohibition.
While the tax credit scholarships are used by about 100,000 lower-income, mostly black and Hispanic students, the Family Empowerment Scholarships targets a new market.
Under the legislation, a family of four earning as much as $77,250 annually could qualify for the scholarships, which equals 300 percent of the federal poverty level, although lower-income families would still get a preference.
The vouchers also will pull about $136 million directly from the state’s public school funding. While that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $22.2 billion system which finances 2.8 million public school children – it’s an alarming move, Democrats said.