A bill that would simplify Florida’s education choice programs by merging five scholarships into two and add a flexible spending option is headed to a vote on the Senate floor after clearing the Senate Appropriations Committee today.
By a vote of 11 to 8 along party lines, with Sen. Aaron Beane absent, members approved SB48, which would transfer students receiving the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to the Family Empowerment Scholarship and sunset the 20-year-old FTC.
“Parents are the best advocates for their children, and now more than ever, parents are seeking freedom from a one-size-fits-all system to look for resources and tools to uniquely tailor learning for their child’s individual needs,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Manny Diaz Jr, R-Hialeah. Diaz added that the legislation will offer more options to more families by using money already dedicated for education.
The bill is among the top priorities of Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who praised Diaz for shepherding the legislation.
“School choice is here to stay,” Simpson said. “In recent months, the ongoing pandemic has even further highlighted the important responsibility of every parent to choose the best learning environment for their child, and with well over 100,000 students currently utilizing the variety of scholarship programs we have available, I’m glad we are streamlining eligibility and funding so that parents have a better idea of their full range of options.”
The bill also would merge the McKay Scholarship Program for students with disabilities and the Gardiner Scholarship Program, creating a new program for students with unique abilities called the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship Program. That program would allow families in all state scholarship programs to have flexible spending accounts, also known as education savings accounts, or ESAs. Currently, only students enrolled in the Gardiner program have such flexibility.
The accounts allow families to spend their money on pre-approved services and equipment in addition to private school tuition. Approved expenditures include electronic devices, curriculum, part-time tutoring programs, educational supplies, equipment, and therapies that insurance programs do not cover. The bill would expand eligible services for McKay-Gardiner students to include music, art, and theater programs, as well as summer education programs.
The scholarship programs are also available to homeschool students and those enrolled in eligible private schools. In addition, victims of bullying at district schools who transfer to private schools as part of the Hope Scholarship Program would also be served by the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program and receive the same spending flexibility.
Under the bill, donors would still be allowed to contribute to the tax-credit program through a newly created state trust fund. However, donations would go to serve K-12 education generally in the state, rather than pay for scholarships. Both the FTC and the FES are income based and serve students whose families meet financial eligibility rules.
The bill does not materially change the eligibility criteria for any of the scholarship programs and reduces the currently allowable statutory growth in some of the programs.
During the nearly two-hour debate, numerous individuals spoke in favor of the bill, including families who have benefited from school choice scholarships and others whose children have been denied scholarships because of a requirement that students applying for Family Empowerment Scholarships and McKay Scholarships must have attended a public school during the previous year.
SB 48 would eliminate that requirement.
“We have made great sacrifices, including taking second jobs, to send our daughters to Trinity Christian, a school we felt was best for them,” said Jerold Maynard, a firefighter from Apopka whose finances were hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
When the family applied for income-based scholarships, they were rejected because of the prior-public rule. Maynard said his daughters were heartbroken when they had to withdraw and attend a district school. He supports the bill because he wants to spare other parents from going through the same struggle his family endured.
“Ironically, now that the girls are in public school, they meet the prior-year requirement for the Family Empowerment Scholarship,” Maynard said. “But no family should have to pull their kids out of a school that works for them.”
Rasheda Alexander of Pensacola, whose two daughters receive scholarships to attend private school, said the program allows her children to enjoy a learning environment where “they don’t get lost in the mix.” Choking with emotion, she described how her older daughter was bullied at her prior district school because of a learning disability.
“I’m glad that Sen. Diaz’s bill would give parents even more options on how to spend their children’s education dollars,” she said. “This scholarship has truly been a blessing to our family. Without it, it would not be possible for me to put my children in the learning environment that is best for them.”
Support was not limited to parents. Mike Juhas, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Pensacola/Tallahassee, recounted how the scholarship program came to the aid of a student with a heart defect by allowing her to afford tuition even as she and her mother lived paycheck to paycheck. Now a high school senior and honor student, the girl has been accepted to three colleges.
“I have seen firsthand how these scholarships change students’ lives,” he said.
Critics of the bill questioned how, with parents controlling the money, the program would ensure accountability.
Diaz responded that guardrails created eight years ago for the Gardiner Scholarship Program would apply to all educational spending accounts. An online purchasing platform includes only pre-approved items. If parents submit receipts for items not approved in the system, they run the risk of paying for the item or services on their own if approval is denied.
“This is not new to us,” Diaz said.
SB 48 was approved earlier this month by the Senate Education Committee and cleared the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education two weeks later.
For more information about what the bill includes, click here.)
A companion bill is expected in the House.
The bill has received endorsements from several groups including the Central Florida Urban League. The Libre Initiative – Florida and Americans For Prosperity are sponsoring a joint campaign to promote the bill.