Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed into law a bill creating a new voucher program for thousands of low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools using taxpayer dollars traditionally spent on public schools.
The $130 million Family Empowerment Scholarship program was a top priority for the Republican-led Legislature and DeSantis, who signed it during a ceremony at a religious school in Miami Gardens, a city with a predominantly African American population. Its passage marks one of the largest expansions of private-school voucher programs in the state’s history.
Up to 18,000 students can enroll in the program’s first year from families with annual incomes at 300% of federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that means those making no more than $77,250. The number of students who can participate could rise in future years.
DeSantis and GOP lawmakers say the program gives parents more school choice for their children, especially those in districts where local public schools are failing and those who have special issues that can be better addressed in a different education setting.
“I personally believe, as a matter of philosophy, that parents know what’s best for their kids,” the governor said. “What this will do, in one fell swoop, you’re offering opportunity for thousands and thousands of low-income students.”
Many Democrats and teacher unions contend the program would strip away money from cash-strapped public schools. They note that the Florida Supreme Court found a similar law unconstitutional in 2006 and argue this proposal would meet the same fate, although DeSantis has appointed three new justices with a far more conservative outlook than the previous court.
“Along with the majority of people in Florida, we believe that public education is a fundamental good for this state and for the nation as a whole,” said Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association. “But our neighborhood public schools are under attack — there’s no other way to describe it.”
Still, the Legislature this year approved a budget spending $783 million more on public schools than last year, or $242 more per student, and included additional money for teacher and staff bonuses. No across-the-board raises were approved for teachers, however.
Florida already has other voucher programs, including a tax break for businesses that provide private school scholarships for low-income students. Other programs provide vouchers for students with special needs, those who are disabled and those who are bullied. Thousands of students attend private schools through these programs, some of which have lengthy waiting lists.
The new voucher program would place priority on the students from the lowest-income families, those at 185% of the federal poverty level — a maximum $47,637 annually for a family of four. All students in the program would be eligible until they graduate high school or turn 21, whichever comes first.
In addition to the vouchers, the bill modifies the “Best and Brightest” program that awards bonuses to the most effective classroom teachers and to principals based on a school’s academic improvement. It eliminates use of a teacher’s SAT or ACT scores as a factor in getting a bonus, according to a Senate staff analysis.
But it was the voucher part of the bill that attracted the most attention and debate, and there are some Democrats who supported it. Rep. James Bush, a Democrat from the Miami suburb of Opa-locka, attended the bill signing ceremony and said the voucher program would be good for struggling inner-city neighborhoods.
“I stand here today because this is the right stand for our children,” Bush said. “This bill is not about public versus private education.”