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Florida’s GOP Lawmakers Accelerate Plan To Use Far More Public Dollars for Private Schools

| March 16, 2019

Sen. Kelli Stargell, R-Lakeland, prefers to peg the voucher program closer to the poverty line. (Florida House)

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, prefers to peg the voucher program closer to the poverty line. (Florida House)

In a priority for Republican leaders, the House on Thursday began moving forward with a dramatic expansion of school vouchers, including allowing middle-class families to apply for state-funded scholarships to send children to private schools.

The GOP-controlled House and Senate and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis all want to expand voucher-type programs and point to a waiting list of about 14,000 students in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves low-income children.

But the voucher proposals that have emerged from the House, Senate and DeSantis’ office vary on details such as student eligibility and will have to be negotiated before the scheduled May end of the annual legislative session.

The House Education Committee on Thursday approved a bill (PCB EDC 19-01) that would create a new voucher program, known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which would be open to many middle-class families.

If approved, the program would be available to families whose incomes are up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level during the 2019-2020 school year — a calculation that equates to $77,250 for a family of four. The threshold would gradually increase, with a family of four making $96,572 eligible for the vouchers in the 2022-2023 school year.

Rep. James Bush, a Miami Democrat who supports school choice, said he is worried the House is moving away from the goal of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which was to help low-income children attend private schools.

“My only concern is keeping the original intent of helping low-income children,” Bush said.

By comparison, the Senate proposal (SB 7070) would create a program that would provide vouchers to families up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level — the equivalent of $66,950 for a family of four.

Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and Senate Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said they think that’s a better approach.

“In the real world, depending on where you live, if you look at a family of four and say they make $96,000, it sounds like a lot. But sometimes it is deceiving,” Diaz told The News Service of Florida. “But I do believe that our position is more in line with the intent of addressing the need of those who would benefit from the Tax Credit Scholarship program.”

Diaz, however, was careful about calling the House’s household income threshold a middle-class family.

“We all know the truth,” Diaz said. “They are working class, obviously.”

Vouchers have long been a controversial issue in the Legislature, with supporters saying private-school scholarships offer needed choices to families and opponents saying they strip money from traditional public schools.

On Thursday, Republicans on the House Education Committee lauded Chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, for her “bravery” in spearheading the effort on the contested issue. Other GOP members got emotional during debate, sharing personal experiences.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said he is able to pay tens of thousands of dollars every year for his children’s tuition but added that he wants the bill because not every parent can do so.

“It is a crime that not every parent has the same choice than I do,” he added.

A teary-eyed Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, said the school choice issue is the reason he got into public office.

“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.

If the House proposal is signed into law, the Family Empowerment Scholarship program would create about 28,000 scholarships for the 2019-20 school year. Sullivan said the bill also would eliminate the waiting list in the Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves about 100,000 students.

But the Florida Democratic Party blasted the proposal, in part raising questions about whether it would be constitutional to use tax dollars for the new program. The state Supreme Court in 2006 struck down a voucher program backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

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

–Ana Ceballos, News Service of Florida

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8 Responses for “Florida’s GOP Lawmakers Accelerate Plan To Use Far More Public Dollars for Private Schools”

  1. Derrick Redder says:

    What you mean Caucasian kids might get some help? Oh no the world is going to end!

    Stop this nonsense alread and I mean it on all levels low medium, high and bought with bribes. Stop the free rides for everyone at the taxpayers expense even for those athletes that graduate on the 5 yr. Program and can’t even spell the Institute of Higher Learning they rostered on

    Be a dam shame if we just go with attendance by academic merit first.

    Just look at college today, endowments of 37 billion?
    Stuffed with useless degree programs that 3/4 will never find a job in and another 1/4 that will be in debt for most of their remaining productive years.

    The whole University concept has been a sham since the late 60’s and with exception to Major degrees in medicine, science, math, chemistry engineering and sad to say business , teaching & law . The rest are does the most part a joke or useless.

  2. Kw says:

    What’s the gop’s end goal here? Eliminate public education?

  3. Bill says:

    OMG not that…… a dramatic expansion of school vouchers, including allowing middle-class families to apply for state-funded scholarships…thats GREAT working families should also get aid in finding the best schools for their kids. State Funds should follow the kid to whatever accredited school they go to. Why should government have a monopoly on schools?

  4. Stranger in a strange land says:

    By bleeding off the better students from public schools with involved parents, and rejecting difficult students with learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and parents that don’t care, so called “charter and private schools” will gut public schools which will fulfill republican dreams. As someone who became a successful tax paying citizen thanks to public schools and universities and the father of two sons who are now electrical engineers, thanks to public schools and universities I am saddened to foresee the demise of public schools in Florida. The lack of accountability in the charter and private schools means that many students will either get a substandard education. While on the subject, I look forward to seeing the back flips that Republican politicians perform when the first private Muslim school qualifies to receive vouchers or scholarships.

  5. Mark says:

    Does a family of four = Mom and three kids?

  6. Mary Fusco says:

    Get rid of the voucher program. Public school is FREE. These parents have no problem taking everything under the sun for free but feel that their kids need to go to private school.. Horse Poop. We were far from rich yet my children all went to public school, graduated from college by working their way through and us with parent loans. My grandchildren all go to public schools and their parents are more than able to send them to private schools. 2 are in state colleges. Enough is enough. If you can pay for private schooling – fine. If not, go to plan B which is public school.

  7. Pogo says:

    @Republican want trump university for all

    Since jeb, Republicans have been accustomed to putting any obliging warm body up for office – and electing them without shame, e.g., “…On Thursday, Republicans on the House Education Committee lauded Chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, for her “bravery” in spearheading the effort on the contested issue…”

    “…Sullivan was born in Altamonte Springs, Florida, and claims that she has completed half the credits at Liberty University towards a degree. However, the registrar of the university says Sullivan was enrolled for a single semester in 2011.[1] She has held a number of jobs, including working at a blueberry farm, as a waitress, and as a babysitter, and campaigned for Amendment 2, an ultimately successful constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Florida in 2008, and for her mother, Patricia Sullivan, who unsuccessfully ran for the Congress in the Republican primary in 2010 in the 8th congressional district.[2]…”

    Wake up. Pay attention. You don’t need to be a professional investigator and/or reporter to find out what you ought to know about the characters running your world.

  8. Randy Jones says:

    A reasonable person might see public schools going the way of the milk man and Sears & Roebuck. Today, high school students can take their courses online. Amazon killed K-Mart (and other brick and mortars). Perhaps not “soon” but eventually there will be no public schools. Yes?

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