Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed into law a $200 million school choice plan that will pave the way for about 61,000 new students to become eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers that will help families pay for private tuition and other education expenses.
The measure is a continuation of a decades-long push to expand school choice in Florida, a move Republicans support and most Democrats have fought as they advocate for more oversight and accountability for private schools that get state-funded vouchers.
Legislators who attended Tuesday’s bill signing heralded the law as the largest school choice expansion in state history.
“All in all, there is going to be more opportunities for more students and more families in the state of Florida as a result of this legislation,” DeSantis said at a bill signing ceremony at St. John the Apostle Catholic School in Hialeah, the home parish of state Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.
The governor signed the bill alongside Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, bill sponsors Diaz and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, and lawmakers of the Miami-Dade delegation. A crowd of students from the school, where about 85% of students attend through a state voucher program, greeted DeSantis with cheers and handmade welcome signs.
By signing the bill, DeSantis set in motion a massive expansion of school choice in Florida that will also bring some changes to the structure of the state’s voucher programs, including those that serve students with special needs.
McKay and Gardiner scholarships
The measure, which takes effect July 1, will fold voucher programs for students with special needs — the Gardiner Scholarship and the John M. McKay Scholarship — into the Family Empowerment Scholarship, a newer voucher program that has served a broader population of low- to middle-income families.
Some parents and Democrats have raised concerns that merging the Gardiner and McKay scholarship programs into the Family Empowerment program could shut out awards for children with the most needs.
Camille Gardiner, the wife of former Senate President Andy Gardiner, led the opposition on the change during the legislative session. The program is named after the former Senate president whose son, Andrew, has Down syndrome. In committee discussions, she said the bill will have “many unintended consequences” for students with special needs.
Diaz and Fine have both said the changes will not hurt students with special needs. Fine said all students currently benefiting from Gardiner scholarships will continue to receive the same benefits and “many students will get more.” Diaz said the bill will protect students with special needs because awards will be calculated based on their disability.
DeSantis, though, did not appear to be a fan of the change.
“To be quite frank, that was not a change that I had asked for. But basically, what the Legislature did was grandfather these current Gardiner and McKay families into this new program so they will not see a change in the scope of covered services,” he said Tuesday.
Combining the Gardiner and McKay scholarships also means the awards for students with special needs will be funded through the state’s main funding pot for schools, known as the Florida Education Finance Program, rather than through their own separate budget lines.
“We will be monitoring how it affects our families and our students who have unique abilities,” DeSantis said. “If it turns out that there’s any hiccups in this, we will not hesitate to propose reforms in the January legislative session.”
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Raising the income eligibility cap
Aside from merging the programs, the legislation will also raise the income eligibility cap for Family Empowerment awards. It will allow families of four with an income of nearly $100,000 to qualify for awards, up from the current $79,500 income threshold. And students will no longer need to attend a public school before receiving a state voucher.
Families will also have more spending flexibility over Family Empowerment vouchers. They will be able to use them for additional educational expenses, including technology and internet services, on top of private school tuition. Students with special needs who receive vouchers will also be able to spend the money on even more expenses, including specialized therapies, which are currently allowed for Gardiner Scholarship recipients.
“These are the most robust scholarships that will be able to be dedicated to not just tuition but to other things that impact education — maybe you need a tutor, maybe you need some other wraparound services that go with that education,” DeSantis said at the press conference.
DeSantis, a veteran, also said he was proud that the expanded scholarship program ensures that children of U.S. Armed Forces members are not subject to wait lists and enrollment caps.
“When it comes to providing opportunities, we’re on the offense,” he said.
The measure was a compromise reached by Republican lawmakers toward the end of the legislative session. Initially, the Senate proposed a much more expansive plan that would have merged the state’s five key school voucher programs, made them all state-funded and converted them into educational saving accounts able to pay for private tutoring, therapy and even college savings.
Differences in how such a plan would be funded ended up tanking that proposal, which was sponsored by Diaz. Under Diaz’s plan, the Legislature needed to create a trust fund to collect corporate donations and state funds to pay for vouchers. The House did not want to go that far.
United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats said in a video statement that she was “appalled” by some of the statements DeSantis made at the bill signing and wanted to set the record straight. She pointed out that Miami-Dade public school students received $40 less in student funding from the previous year, and the $1,000 bonuses for some school employees come from federal stimulus funding.
“This is not where our public tax dollars should be going,” she said. “We’re doing an incredible job and what we are asking our state Legislature is to properly fund our public schools, not privatize us and not defund us. But what we’re seeing is the exact opposite.”
‘A better fit’
In attendance Tuesday in Hialeah was Barbara Rodriguez, who has sent all four of her children to private schools through the state’s voucher programs. She said the Gardiner scholarship was especially a lifesaver for her son Angel, who has special needs. She said Angel was bullied in public school and teachers could not meet his needs.
Rodriguez’s family is formerly homeless. Her oldest son, Miguel, graduated from North Miami Beach Senior High last year and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
“He wanted more of a high school experience in the public school area,” said Rodriguez of Miguel. “I tried the same thing with Angel but because of the special needs part they couldn’t accommodate him.”
“I think everyone’s needs is different. He [Miguel] was able to overcome whatever was going on with his peers,” she said. As for Rodriguez’s other children, “Private school and scholarships was a better fit for them. For Angel, a smaller setting is better for him.”
Miguel said public school offered a change in environment for him — and prepared him for the “real world,” like getting into your first fight and dealing with trouble.
“Public school prepares you for that, for the real world,” he said.