Fla. lawmaker: Time is ripe for universal private school scholarships

Rep. Randy Fine

Emboldened by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, a key Florida lawmaker says he wants to make school vouchers available to every child in the state.

The state already offers tax credit scholarships to low-income and working class students. It offers vouchers and education savings accounts for children with special needs. For early learners, the Voluntary Pre-K offers universal vouchers for public and private preschools*.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said he wants to file legislation that would eliminate “the income threshold and open it up to everybody,” so all K-12 students could receive public support to attend any school of their choice.

Fine, a wealthy technology entrepreneur, said he wants every child to have access to the same options as his own kids.

“There is nothing more important we do than educating our kids,” he said. “We spend $24 billion on education. I want every kid to have the same opportunities I did as a child. I am the product of public education and started a number of companies and have a great career. I am making sure my boys have the same opportunities I did. I want to make sure every kid has those same opportunities.”

However, the representative hasn’t decided whether to create education savings accounts, similar to what Gov. Rick Scott proposed in 2011, or more traditional vouchers.

Scott’s proposal struggled to gain traction in the Legislature. But since then, two other states — Nevada and Arizona — have created education savings account programs with universal or near-universal eligibility. Parents can use the money to pay for private-school tuition, homeschool curriculum, public-school courses, college savings and other approved education-related expenses.

If Fine chooses a more traditional voucher program, that would mean simply giving parents vouchers to enable them to put their children in private schools.

School choice advocates across the country hailed last week’s Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer ruling, which held private religious schools should have the right to participate in publicly funded programs.

Vouchers could still face a different constitutional hurdle, however. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Holmes that vouchers violated the state constutional mandate for a “uniform” public school system. Top Florida Republicans, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, have criticized that decision.

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, administers the tax credit and Gardiner Scholarship programs.

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