Florida Legislature begins 60-day session today

Lisa Buie

family empowerment scholarship

Today marks the start of the 2020 Florida legislative session, featuring a $91.4billion budget proposal from Gov. Ron DeSantis that includes recommended increases in teacher salaries and what DeSantis is touting as “bold and meaningful” educational reform efforts.

Among bills already in the mix are several that would benefit education choice. Here are a few that bear watching.

SB 1400. Filed by Senate Education chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah Gardens, this bill does not yet have a House companion. It seeks to align the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship programs, both of which provide private school scholarships to economically disadvantaged students, to align income eligibility and to allow some students to transfer between the two programs.  

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, created in 2001, serves roughly 107,000 students and is funded by tax-credited corporate contributions. The Family Empowerment Scholarship, passed into law last year, serves roughly 18,000 students and is funded with direct state dollars through the Florida Education Finance Program.  

Among the provisions, SB 1400 would: 

·       Allow students who are currently on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and who attended a district public school prior to being awarded a scholarship to transfer to the Family Empowerment Scholarship program 

·       Align the income eligibility threshold between the two programs; currently, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is capped at 260 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which is $66,950 for a household of four. The Family Empowerment Scholarship is capped at 300 percent, or $77,250. The bill would set both at 300 percent. 

·       Allow Family Empowerment Scholarship students to take up to two Florida Virtual School courses per year with no impact on their scholarship, aligning that program with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program 

·       Allow students on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to remain on the scholarship until they graduate from high school or turn 19, which would align the program to the new Family Empowerment Scholarship law 

SB 1164. Filed by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, the bill does not yet have a House companion; however, it passed through the Senate Education Committee Monday by a unanimous vote of 8-0. It offers a variety of changes to the Gardiner Scholarship, which was created in 2014 and serves more than 13,000 students with severe special needs. 

Among the provisions, SB 1164: 

·       Includes the addition of a new category for art, music and theater classes or lessons, broadening the ability of Gardiner recipients to participate in these activities in addition to activities currently covered under the part-time tutoring category 

·       Allows funds to be spent on educational summer and after-school programs not limited to programs specialized for students with unique abilities 

·       Allows students who need a scholarship but may be on the waiting list a better chance of receiving the scholarship, as it closes accounts of students who don’t use their funds after two years rather than three 

·       Allows students who turn 3 after Sept. 1 to apply and give them the ability to be placed on a waiting list so they have priority after renewal students when scholarships are awarded the following year (Students who turn 3 by Sept. 1 already are eligible to apply for the scholarship.)

Some other education choice bills to watch include: 

SB 324, filed by Diaz and Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, requiring the Department of Education to maintain a disqualification list and requiring district school boards to investigate certain complaints and report results of such investigations to the department

HB 883, a similar bill filed by Rep. Wyman Duggan, R-District 15, requiring the Department of Education to maintain a disqualification list and prohibiting individuals on the list from employment at charter schools or private schools that participate in scholarship programs

SB 1246, filed by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R, Lakeland, relating to dual enrollment

HB 187, a similar bill filed by Rep. Ardian Zika, R-District 37, allowing home education and private school students to gain access to instructional materials used for dual enrollment courses free of charge and allowing private schools to set up articulation agreements for dual enrollment that do not charge the student or the school for the cost of tuition or instructional materials

HB 2565, filed by Rep. James Bush III, D-District 109, providing a non-recurring appropriation of $1 million to the Florida Department of Education for security funding to K-12 private schools

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