New scholarship capped historic legislative session

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Florida’s 2019 legislative session rewarded supporters of school choice as the House and Senate created the Family Empowerment Scholarship and boosted funding for charter schools.

The new state-funded K-12 scholarship will help get 18,000 low-income and working-class students off a waiting list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) for lower-income families. (The FTC scholarship is managed by non-profits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.) The 18-year-old scholarship serves 100,512 students this year and is funded by corporate contributions that receive dollar-for-dollar state tax credits.

However, the rate of growth in contributions slowed this year and failed to keep up with demand for the scholarship, which produced a waiting list of 13,000 students.

Unlike the FTC scholarship, the new FES program would be funded with tax dollars through the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), which is the operational formula for funding traditional public schools (as well as the state’s two-decades-old McKay Scholarship for students with special needs).

The new scholarship targets 18,000 students in the first year and will add roughly 7,000 additional students in future years. It also slightly increases the income eligibility ceiling from 260 percent of poverty ($66,950 for a household of four) in the current FTC program to 300 percent of poverty ($77,250) in FES.

The bill (CS/SB 7070), which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, gives priority to students with household incomes up to 185 percent of poverty ($47,637).

Passionate debate over the bill divided Republicans and Democrats in both chambers, and the final version survived 24 failed Democratic amendments. In the end, six House Democrats voted for the measure.

Responding to Democratic criticism of the bill, Rep. Jennifer Sullivan (R-Mount Dora), the bill’s sponsor and chair of the House Education Committee, said she was moved by testimonials from parents, either on the FTC scholarship or the waiting list, who testified before lawmakers during the session.

Two of them, Carletha McGuire of Miami and Shareka Wright of Orlando, were among those pleased by the bill’s passage.

McGuire, a retired paraprofessional with Miami-Dade public schools who is raising two grandchildren and a nephew, said she was thrilled with the news. McGuire’s younger granddaughter, Monique, started at Kids Learning Center on a Tax Credit Scholarship but was on the waiting list this year. Monique’s grades have slipped at her neighborhood school.

“I let Monique know the bill passed, and she’s so happy she’ll be able to go back to the school she loves,” McGuire said. “We can leave that worry behind.”

McGuire said the past few months have been stressful for her family. She watched the hearings closely, and earlier this month, made the trip to Tallahassee to testify in favor of the new scholarship program.

“I just want to say to the lawmakers, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for doing the right thing to make sure families have what they need. Thank you for loving our kids,’” she said.

Wright, a single mother of three who drives a garbage truck for the city of Orlando, was equally thankful. Her sons Zion, 8, and Jayden, 6, are on the waiting list.

“I’m tired of people saying my sons don’t deserve a private school,” she said. “The new Family Empowerment Scholarship gives options for moms like me.”

In another move with a major impact on school choice, lawmakers passed a tax bill (HB 7123) with a provision that requires school districts to share certain tax revenues with charter schools.

Starting July 1, any school district that passes a local education tax referendum must share the revenue with charter schools, which are public schools. The amount of money charters get would be based proportionally on the number of students they enroll.

The measure was in response to events of last November, when voters in eight counties approved extra taxes for public schools. Four of the counties – Alachua, Lee, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach – made formal decisions prior to the election not to share the revenue from tax increases with charter schools.

  • CS/SB 7070 also included an expansion of the “Schools of Hope” program, which allows charter schools to open near traditional public schools rated “persistently low-performing” because of failing school grades. The legislation adjusted the definition of “low performing,” allowing more schools to fit within the category. It also would allow “Hope” charters to open in low-income areas designated by the federal government.

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