In a party-line vote, the Florida Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would create the state-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship, which would eliminate the waiting list for low-income families seeking the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and expand school choice opportunities for thousands of others.
The legislation, SB 7070, would serve 18,000 students in the program’s first year. The number may expand each year by a quarter of one percent of the state’s total public school enrollment. A similar bill pending in the House, HB 7075, would accommodate 28,000 students in the first year. There are about 13,000 students on the FTC waiting list. Unlike the FTC, the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) would be funded with tax revenues from the Florida Education Finance Program.
Sen. Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah), who sponsored the bill and chairs the Education Committee, characterized Thursday’s 23-17 vote as “monumental.”
“Public education was started to prepare the populace to uphold our republic,” Diaz said. “It wasn’t about institutions or unions, but (educating) the individual, who could continue to protect the freedoms we all live under today.
“When we talk about public education, we need to talk about the individual student, not the collective. If one student is not receiving the education they need to uphold the republic, we have not done our job.”
Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland), who voted for the measure, said the bill “strikes the perfect balance between parents and the system.”
“For years, we worked on bills to give parents options,” Stargel said. “This bill gives the ultimate choice to for parents to have the same choices as every other parent.”
In a statement afterward, John Kirtley, chairman of Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (and which hosts this blog), echoed Diaz’s words.
“This is a monumental achievement by the Florida Senate,” Kirtley said. “I want to thank Senate President Bill Galvano, K-12 Chair Manny Diaz, and K-12 Appropriations Chair Kelly Stargel for their incredible leadership in getting this bill through their chamber. It will give thousands of low-income and working-class parents the power to choose the best learning environment for their children.”
The FTC program serves more than 100,000 students statewide with an average annual family income of $25,751. But this year, for the first time in 14 years, a slowing rate of growth in fundraising resulted in fewer students served than the prior year.
Demand for the scholarship remains strong. More than 150,000 students have started applications for the 2019-20 school year, more than 59,000 of whom are new, and nearly 95,000 scholarships already have been awarded.
That mismatch spurred Gov. Ron DeSantis and House and Senate leaders to seek a solution to accommodate Florida families looking for more education options.
Under the Senate bill, the income eligibility limit for families to receive the scholarship would be 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($77,250 for a family of four), up from the 260 percent limit in the FTC program. The House version also sets the first-year income limit at 300 percent, but increases it to 325 percent the next year and every year thereafter to 375 percent in 2022-23. Both bills give priority to those families with household incomes up to 185 percent of the poverty limit ($47,637 for a family of four).
Several lawmakers argued that the bill is unconstitutional because it would allow public dollars to be spent at private, religious schools, and that the FES would divert money from public schools.
Diaz said the opposite is true.
“If this gets signed, we’re taking away the obstacle for 129,000 students to reach the best educational opportunity, according to their parent,” he said. “Every parent knows what’s best for their individual child. At no point should that responsibility go to the government.
“Public schools aren’t going to go away. There’s no drain on the money, there’s actually a savings. This bill provides flexibility for our public schools.”
During a lengthy exchange with Sen. Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale), Diaz said funding the tax credit scholarship through the FEFP was not a new process, noting that the McKay Scholarship for students with special needs has been funded the same way for 19 years.
Thurston asked if students on the tax credit scholarship have a “recognized special need.”
Diaz responded: “The special needs these children have is that their parents can’t afford to make choices to have their children in the best educational environment.”
Diaz later added: “It’s paramount that our students have the right opportunities, regardless of their ZIP code, to have the best education possible.”
Thurston was not swayed.
“We’re still draining money and providing every opportunity for additional public school funds to” be spent at public schools, Thurston said during debate. “It’s a continuing nail in the coffin to our public education system.”
In response to those concerns, Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville) argued that because it costs less to educate scholarship and charter school students, choice programs actually save money for traditional public education.
“This is pretty simple math,” Perry said. “We’ve got over $1.4 billion that we save, or we spend less on. If all those students were put into regular public schools, not only would we have $1.4 billion more we’d have to come up with, we’d have to add classrooms at a $1.5 billion investment. You can’t say that we’re diverting money. We’re saving money.”
Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) questioned the wisdom of allowing parents to remove their children from a highly rated public school system with high accountability and academic standards.
“For 20 years or longer, we’ve worked on and modified an accountability system for public schools that has been classified as one of the best in the nation,” Montford said. “Why are we allowing to take public funds to go to school where standards are not as high or maybe there aren’t any standards? If our public schools are so good, why allow parents that choice? Do we not want every student in the state to be held to at least a minimum standard?”
In his closing remarks before the vote, Diaz listed the number of state-funded programs – the McKay Scholarship, Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten, Bright Futures, and others – that allow Floridians to spend public dollars at the private, religious school of their choice.
“No one in this chamber opposes any of our investment in those students at that level,” he said. “It is only when we reach the K-12 level that someone has a problem with making an investment on a student on behalf of a parent to educate a child.”