A major expansion of private school vouchers using taxpayer dollars traditionally spent on public schools, a top priority for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, began moving forward Thursday in the Florida House.
The House Education Committee approved the GOP measure with some Democratic support that would open the door to private schools to about 28,000 students whose families meet certain income requirements. Eventually, the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program would apply to families of four with incomes of more than $96,000 a year.
The bill also would give priority to students from families earning about $47,600 a year, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four.
The committee chairwoman, Republican Rep. Jennifer Sullivan of Eustis, said the bill should not be viewed as pitting public versus private schools but as one that hands parents greater control over the education of their children.
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"This bill is about what is best for our students. It helps our parents have a real choice. I don't believe government knows best. I believe parents know best," Sullivan said.
Before the vote, DeSantis reinforced his support in a tweet.
"Parents should be able to make the best educational decisions for their child, and that starts with expanding school vouchers," the governor's tweet said.
The House bill is much broader that its Senate counterpart, which envisions about 15,000 students as eligible for the new program with income levels capped at just under $67,000 for a family of four. Eventually, the two versions are likely to be combined into a single final product.
Florida currently has four scholarship programs that provide for more than 100,000 students to attend private and religious schools, including many children with disabilities and special needs. Sullivan said her bill also would help alleviate a waiting list of thousands of students for one of these programs and provide a voucher for parents to obtain transportation for their children to a favored public school.
Opponents, including the Florida PTA, League of Women Voters and the AFL-CIO, contend that further expansion of vouchers using money normally spent on public schools threatens the entire public education system and contributes to a drain of teachers from public schools. They say the Legislature should give teachers raises and put more money into public schools.
"We cannot be taking public dollars and funneling them through private institutions," said Nicolette Springer of the League of Women Voters. "Public funds should be used for public education."
Still, the bill in the Republican-led House attracted some Democratic support. Voucher programs initially targeted lower-income people and lower-performing school districts whose students hoped to escape from a failing education environment.
"This is not a perfect bill, but this is a start," said Democratic Rep. James Bush of Opa-locka, who voted in favor. "We need to keep this at what the original intent was all about, and that was to educate low-income children."
A similar program enacted under former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush that directly used public money for private school vouchers was struck down in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court. But DeSantis has appointed three new justices since his election, tilting the high court in a decidedly more conservative direction and possibly opening the door for a favorable ruling on the new voucher program.
Sullivan said she believes the program would pass court scrutiny.
"I believe this bill will be constitutional," she said. "It's up to the courts to decide that."