Senate and House proposals to revamp Florida’s school-voucher programs are closer to aligning after the House Appropriations Committee approved the House version with changes Thursday. The bills (HB 7045 and SB 48) are ready to be considered by the full House and full Senate.
The House proposal would “dramatically increase” eligibility for voucher programs, according to bill sponsor Randy Fine, R-Brevard County. In part, it would consolidate the Gardiner and McKay scholarship programs, which serve students with special needs, with the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which serves a broader population of low- to middle-income families. The House proposal would allow Family Empowerment Scholarship vouchers to be spent on things such as digital devices and internet expenses under changes adopted Thursday.
It also would align income eligibility for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program with the Family Empowerment program, increasing eligibility to a maximum of 300 percent of the federal poverty level. That means a family of four with a household income of $79,500 could qualify. “A huge number of families who presently do not qualify for these scholarships will be able to, giving more choice,” Fine said.
Opponents of the House bill argued that expanding voucher programs would erode funding for traditional public schools. Some also said private schools that receive vouchers aren’t accountable under the same standards as public schools. The Senate’s voucher plan still has marked differences from the House bill, despite the changes adopted Thursday.
The Senate proposal would consolidate the state’s five major voucher programs into two. One program would serve special needs students and would be known as the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship program. The Senate proposal also would establish all voucher programs as “education savings accounts” that could be spent on a wide range of expenses in addition to private school tuition.
Senate sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday the bills are getting closer. “It (the House) looks like it’s moving more in the direction of our bill. So, we still have some kinks to be worked out there. Because our bill is already ready for the floor, there’s really not a rush for us,” Diaz said. “It’s ready, sitting for that negotiation.”