Florida Vastly Expands Voucher Program

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Florida Vastly Expands Voucher Program

In signing into law House Bill 7067 on Thursday, Governor Ron DeSantis vastly expanded Florida’s voucher program, lifting the annual cap on growth from 7,000 students to 28,000.

“Since taking office, DeSantis has actively supported school choice initiatives,” reported the Miami Herald. “A year ago, he enacted the ‘Family Empowerment Scholarship,’ setting aside $130 million in state funds to help up to 18,000 low-income children pay for private education.”

This voucher program comes on top of the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program (TCSP), initiated in 2001 to give corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for donations to scholarship funds financing tuition at private schools for children from low-income households. The TCSP funded such scholarships for 109,000 students in 2019-20, with an average allocation of $6,195 per student. The budget cap in 2019-20 for the TCSP was $874 million. Each year, the budget cap may rise 25 percent so long as 90 percent of the cap is reached.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship Program was created in 2019 to address an overflow of students seeking tuition tax credit scholarships. The average value of the vouchers from this program is $7,200.

These two programs combined make Florida the nation’s leader by far in funding private school tuition. While the TCSP does so indirectly, the new voucher program draws directly from state coffers. By 2021, Florida stands to be funding tuition at private schools for more than 200,000 students.

By comparison, other states known for significant voucher or tuition tax credit programs send far fewer students to private schools with public money.

Arizona funded tuition at private schools this year for approximately 50,000 students through a combination of individual and corporate income tax credit programs. Indiana accomplished about the same with a combination of vouchers and individual and corporate tax credit scholarships. Louisiana funded tuition at private schools this year for approximately 10,000 students with a combination of vouchers and individual tax credit scholarships. Ohio funded tuition at private schools this year for approximately 45,000 students with a combination of voucher programs serving students statewide and in Cleveland specifically. And Wisconsin likewise funded tuition at private schools this year for approximately 45,000 students with a combination of voucher programs serving students statewide and in Milwaukee and Racine specifically.

Jeb Bush, who championed school choice as Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007, released a statement on Thursday celebrating the expansion of the state’s voucher program, according to the Miami Herald.

“By providing the nation’s largest and most robust array of educational options,” Bush said, “Florida policymakers can be proud of continuing to invest in proven policies that best prepare students for success in school and in their future.”

While the bill gained bipartisan support in both the Florida House and Senate, it nevertheless met with harsh criticism from activists and legislators opposed to the diversion of public money to private schools.

According to the Miami Herald, “Kathleen Oropeza, a Central Florida parent activist who sued the state to demand improved public school funding, called the bill ‘tone deaf’ — especially in today’s economic hard times, when public education needs added support to serve students.”

The newspaper reported that Representative Carol Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, echoed Oropeza: “Expanding Florida’s $1 billion private school voucher program is as bad for our budget as it is for educational standards in our state. Given the major revenue shortfalls we are dealing with, we cannot afford to bleed more money out of our public schools.”

The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal meanwhile celebrated the news of Florida’s expansion of its voucher program. In an editorial entitled “Florida’s School Choice Blowout,” the board declared: “Good news from Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed the biggest private school voucher expansion in U.S. history—giving families in Democratic, union-controlled states another reason to move to the Sunshine State.”

Samuel E. Abrams
Director, NCSPE

Published Monday, Jun. 29, 2020