Top lawmakers preview legislative choice agenda

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Florida Capitol
The two most powerful state lawmakers on education issues previewed their legislative agenda today at a luncheon celebrating National School Choice Week

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Two of the Florida Legislature’s biggest players in education policy indicated Wednesday that accommodating students on waiting lists for education choice scholarships would be a priority in this year’s legislative session.

Both Senate Education Committee Chair Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, and House Education Chair Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, spoke at a luncheon celebrating National School Choice Week at the James Madison Institute.

Diaz said his priority will be addressing the 13,000 students on the waiting list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the smaller waitlist for the Gardiner Scholarship.

“I’m looking forward to having the Senate lead,” Diaz said. “We must eliminate waitlists. No child at the current poverty levels should be on (a waitlist).”

Sullivan, Diaz’s counterpart in the House, revealed plans for a new Education Savings Account (ESA), but said the details of what it will look like are still being discussed internally. At the very least, Sullivan said, it will serve wait-listed students.

Corporate contributions to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog) slowed in 2018, causing enrollment in the nation’s largest scholarship program for economically disadvantaged K-12 students to drop for the first time in 14 years – a case of supply being unable to meet demand.

In a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday at Piney Grove Boys Academy in Lauderdale Lakes, Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to work with lawmakers to find a solution.

“I would like to eliminate the wait list so that every parent has the ability to make these choices,” he said. “And that will be a priority for me in this next legislative session.”

Diaz told guests at Wednesday’s luncheon that he has additional ideas for the session, specifically working with Florida businesses to provide certification education that aligns with the modern workforce. He also spoke about the importance of civic education, noting that he would like teachers across all subject areas to have a greater understanding of it.

The chairman stated his belief that everyone in the Legislature shares a similar vision when it comes to education.

“Philosophically, we are aligned,” Diaz said. “But we have to be very careful that we are thoughtful and methodical, that we do things correctly.”

Sullivan was more circumspect.

Responding to a question about “how far the ball is going to be pushed” on choice, she said, “To the extent the Senate is supportive, we will find out.”

“We don’t want to jump the gun on anything,” Sullivan said. “It would be easy, out of excitement, to put something out that isn’t ready. But we need to go about it systemically and build consensus, so we have the buy-in.”

Asked about the lagging numbers for the new Hope Scholarship for bullied students – despite the fact that consumers have contributed $12.3 million of their automobile purchase taxes to the scholarship in its first year, only 80 students have been awarded so far – Sullivan noted that some district schools may not be producing documents families need to begin the process of receiving the scholarship.

She hinted that there may be a legislative fix coming to address the low numbers, perhaps in the form of accountability measures for schools that are slow-walking the process.

Sullivan closed by stating that every parent should have educational choices.

“That’s ultimate the goal, the dream of where we want to go,” she said. “Each year we make small steps towards that.”

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