Don’t panic or celebrate yet: this proposal in the Florida Legislature isn’t likely to pass this year, even though it cleared its first hurdle in the Senate last week. But it’s getting its warm-up for next year, when it is likely to be a centerpiece of education “reform.” As such, it would transform and potentially gut public education funding as it’s known today.
The plan, tailored in some ways after health savings accounts, allows parents to use state funding to pay for private school tuition (secular or parochial), private virtual school, college savings plans, home-schooling or tutoring. The bill cleared its first committee last week.
The ambitious plan (SB 1550) would take 40 percent of the state’s per-pupil spending on a public school student and deposit it into an account – the bill calls it an “education savings account” – where it may be used to pay for a series of private education services or for college, but at the expense of the public education budget.
That would amount to about $3,100 per student under this year’s education funding formula.
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“This is a very innovative program that recognizes that parents should have choices,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the bill sponsor. He added that “I don’t believe public schools are going to fold” because of the bill. “Public schools are competing with private schools,” Negron said.
Any student, whether they currently attend public or private school, would be eligible to open an account.
Gov. Rick Scott has previously stated his support for savings account plans for parents, and the idea is supported by an education policy group founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Though the bill cleared the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee on Tuesday, supporters and detractors alike said it isn’t likely to progress much further.
Its House companion (HB 1225) has not yet been heard in a committee.
“It won’t get much further this year,” said Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Florida’s Future, the education think tank affiliated with Bush that is pushing various proposals that would channel more state funding into charter, virtual and private schools. “It was heard as a courtesy.”
Emhof said this is the first year the idea has gotten a hearing in the Legislature and that education savings accounts are likely to return next year for more serious consideration.
According to a legislative analysis of the bill, “A student remains eligible for the program until he or she graduates from high school and as long as the student does not enroll in a public school, charter school, or a virtual instruction program that receives state funding as a result of the student‟s participation. However, a student would remain eligible if he or she is enrolled in the Florida Virtual School.”
Critics say the education savings account bill is just another voucher program. Its unique structure, which doesn’t mandate that taxpayer money go to a private school, may allow the state to skirt around the constitutional issues that have been problematic for school voucher programs in the past.
A previous attempt at a wide-ranging school voucher program called Opportunity Scholarships was struck down in 2006 after the Florida Supreme Court said it violated the state constitution.
“It’s constitutional,” Negron said after the committee. “We do the same thing in voluntary (pre-kindergarten),” Negron said, though the bill analysis says it may be “constitutionally challenged.”
The legislative analysis predicts a constitutional challenge, however, for the same reason that the “opportunity scholarship” voucher program was challenged in 2006: the state Constitution explicitly forbids state funding to be used for any religious purposes in any way: “No revenue of the state…shall ever be taken…directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.” The constitution also requires public education funding to be uniform, whereas the education savings accounts would create a tiered system.
The voucher program, the court’s opinion read in 2006, “diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools that are the sole means set out in the Constitution for the state to provide for the education of Florida’s children. This diversion not only reduces money available to the free schools, but also funds private schools that are not ‘uniform’ […] through the [Opportunity Scholarship Program] the state is fostering plural, nonuniform systems of education.”
Several teachers spoke against the education savings account bill, saying it is a way of diverting funds away from public schools and into private schools and the hands of parents who home school their children.
“While this might be something that seems like a good idea in theory, in reality if we were to have a large number of people opt into this program…I do see us losing some of our wonderful programs,” said Barbara Wilmarth, a Pinellas County public school teacher.
Negron said it doesn’t hurt public schools. He said the measure would allow schools to keep 20 percent of the state’s per-pupil spending cost, even though the student would be gone, though the bill didn’t spell out that percentage.
But the proposal does provide a strong incentive for parents to take their kids out of public schools, critics say.
“What is to stop families from saying ‘I am going to keep my child home’ and just take the money and it is not going to appropriate educational opportunities?” asked Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.
Negron said by requiring the money be deposited into banks and having only certain approved expenditures, such as tuition, books, tutors and college savings plans, would avoid abuse.
The bill would cost the state’s Department of Financial Services over $760,000 to set up, and about $168,541 each year to maintain. The department would be in charge of setting up the savings accounts.
Negron said he was focused on moving the bill forward in the Senate, though acknowledged that “it is a transformational idea and so we are making progress as with any big idea.”
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive