By John Haughey
May 21, 2019 10:00 a.m.
It took combative committee hearings and marathon floor debates to overcome “third rail” resistance to expanding Florida’s school choice voucher program, but none of that rancor was evident Thursday at a private Miami Gardens school where Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the hard-fought bill into law.
“I personally believe, as a matter of philosophy, that parents know what’s best for their kids,” DeSantis said while flanked by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez and bill sponsor Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Miami, at William J. Kirlew Junior Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist K-8 school with a predominantly African American student body.
“What this will do, in one fell swoop,” he added, is offer “opportunity for thousands and thousands of low-income students.”
With that, DeSantis signed Diaz’s Senate Bill SB 7070 into law, creating the $130 million Family Empowerment Scholarship, which will be offered to 18,000 students next fall.
The new school choice program prioritizes students from families with incomes at 185 percent of the federal poverty level – $47,637 annually for a family of four – although students from families with annual incomes at 300 percent of the federal poverty level – $77,250 – would be eligible to attend a private school.
The Family Empowerment Scholarship is among the largest expansions of the state’s school choice voucher program since it was envisioned in the 1990s and implemented in 2001 as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship [FTC] under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Under the FTC, which allows corporations and taxpayers to voluntarily contribute to non-profit scholarship-funding organizations (SFOs), 100,512 Florida students received vouchers to attend 1,807 private schools this school year.
According to Step Up For Students, a non-profit SFO created by the Legislature, two-thirds of recipients are African American or Hispanic with an average household income of $25,756. The federal poverty guideline is $25,750 for a family of four.
Even before SB 7070, Florida’s FTC scholarship was the nation’s largest school-choice program – but it wasn’t big enough to meet demand.
In a recent “redfinED” blog hosted by Step Up, the SFO explained “corporate contributions that receive dollar-for-dollar state tax credits slowed this year, producing a waiting list of 13,000 students. Unlike the FTC, the new program would be funded with tax dollars through the Florida Education Finance Program, the operational formula for traditional public schools.”
Using taxpayer dollars traditionally dedicated exclusively to public schools was vigorously contested as a “third rail” expansion by Democrats and public school advocates, who argued a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling makes it unconstitutional.
“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,” Florida Education Association [FEA] President Fedrick Ingram said in a statement. “But our neighborhood public schools are under attack – there’s no other way to describe it.”
The FEA is calling on “allies of public education” to attend a “summit” in Orlando on May 18 to discuss how to deal with the new voucher program, as well as with a bill already signed by DeSantis that allows vetted, trained teachers to volunteer for the state’s school armed “guardian” program.
“We see this summit as the start of something big, a real grassroots movement that brings together many disparate voices for our schools,” Ingram said. “If public education is going to have a future in Florida, it’s time for the people who care about our public schools to step forward and take control of the conversation.”
But there was no sign of brewing battles ahead Thursday as DeSantis signed the new voucher program into law, which Diaz said “will provide quality choices for all students regardless of zip-code or socio-economic status.”
Rep. James Bush, D-Opa-locka, who attended the signing, praised the program.
“I stand here today because this is the right stand for our children,” he said. “This bill is not about public versus private education.”
The bill-signing was lauded in celebratory tweets and statements.
“Congratulations to @GovRonDeSantis on signing a historic #EducationFreedom bill,” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tweeted. “Florida continues to lead the country in providing students the opportunity to find the right fit for their education!”
“Gov. DeSantis today cemented his commitment to Florida’s hard-working families and their children and furthered the state’s unparalleled legacy of educational freedom,” Bush said in a statement. “The new Family Empowerment Scholarships will ensure many more students, especially those with limited options, can access the quality education they deserve.”
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, thanked DeSantis for being “a strong advocate for empowering all Florida parents to choose the educational environment that is best for their children. This comprehensive legislation expands choice options for Florida parents, while at the same time supporting teachers and principals in our neighborhood public schools.”