House passes bill expanding school vouchers

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Posted April 22, 2021 | News Service of Florida

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The Florida House on Wednesday passed a bill that would significantly expand eligibility for the state’s school-voucher programs.

The measure (HB 7045) was approved in a 79-36 vote, largely along party lines. 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.

Also, students receiving Family Empowerment Scholarship vouchers could spend the money on such things as digital devices and internet expenses in addition to private school tuition. Students with special needs who receive vouchers could spend money on a wider range of expenses. A current requirement that students receiving vouchers be previously enrolled in public schools would be removed under the bill. The measure would also increase the maximum income eligibility to receive vouchers to 375% of the federal poverty level. That means a family of four making nearly $100,000 a year would qualify.

In addition, the value of state-backed vouchers would increase to 100% of the per-student funding amount for public schools, from the current 95%. Several Democrats argued Wednesday that private schools taking vouchers aren’t held to the same accountability standards as public schools.

“I’m not going to argue vouchers with you. I’m just asking right now, have some level of accountability. Make sure children are getting the education they deserve,” Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, said.

Bill sponsor Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, has repeatedly argued that private schools must compete and would risk losing students if they perform poorly.

“One group believes that education should be accountable to government. I reject that. I believe that education should be accountable to parents,” Fine said.

Representatives Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, and James Bush, D-Miami, crossed party lines to join the Republican majority in voting for the bill. Rep. Anika Omphroy, D-Lauderdale Lakes, also voted in favor of the bill after the roll call, which means her vote was not included in the official tally.

A similar Senate bill (SB 48) is ready for consideration by the Senate. Senate sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, filed a proposed amendment Monday that would align the Senate proposal with the House bill.

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