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A universal voucher bill gets Senate support as opponents laud its public school changes

 Backpacks, sweater, and lunch boxes lay unattended in a classroom at Governors Charter School as students attend their daily lunch break (file photo).
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
Backpacks, sweater, and lunch boxes lay unattended in a classroom at Governors Charter School as students attend their daily lunch break (file photo).

A measure removing income caps from Florida’s school voucher programs is now moving in the state Senate, and opponents are concerned about the potential costs.

A similar program in Arizona has far exceeded its original budget, and Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami, is worried the same could happen here if state lawmakers don’t put some guardrails in place.

 “I do think we should look at other states like Arizona...are we making the best, fiscally sound decision? Because it almost looks like we’re putting forth a blank check,” he said during the bill’s first hearing before the Senate K-12 Education committee, Tuesday.

An estimate by an outside group suggests the voucher expansion would top $4 billion in its first year. The plan would allow nearly all families in the state to become eligible for what are called education savings accounts. Those plans can be used to pay private school tuition, support home school, or be used for other education-related expenses. The Senate sponsor is Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee. Simon is a supporter of what’s being called the universal school choice bill.

“Choice is here,” said Simon. “We’re not arguing for systems, we’re arguing for students,” he said in response to concerns that the plan would lead to a decrease in funding for public education. In Florida, money follows the students, and when they leave public schools, their funding goes with them.

The state’s current voucher system is already partly funded by taxpayer money. Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, supported the measure but questioned giving large amounts of money to homeschool families.

“I think that the potential for abuse rises significantly with the dollar amount and keeping a child at home,” Grall said.

Grall, who sponsored a major parental rights bill that called for stricter rules about schools disclosing information to parents, also noted “some private schools think the parental rights bill doesn’t apply to them,” and floated the possibility of requiring private providers to be more transparent about their curriculums, accreditation and whether they serve kids with disabilities.

Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones of Miami, agreed with Grall on that point, while also raising the cost concerns again.

The Senate’s proposal is similar to the version in the House, with a few notable exceptions. One of which is a requirement that the state loosen regulations on public schools in the areas of transportation, teacher pay and certification. Simon, a former NFL football player, has said he believes in a level playing field and those aspects of his plan were welcomed by former Sen. Bill Montford, the longtime head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

“Superintendents embrace competition on a level playing field,” Montford said, “This gives us that.” He also noted some 85% of families currently send their kids to public school and “I think that number will go up under this bill.”

Democrats too, are supportive of those measures, but still want to see more done on holding private and home school organizations to some sort of standard.

A proposed amendment by Jones that would have fined private schools that close mid-year with no warning, was withdrawn—though it appears to have bipartisan support. The measure is in response to numerous reports of private and charter schools abruptly shutting down with no warning, leaving unsuspecting families struggling to get placements for their kids. The amendment was rejected by Simon, who said he wanted to learn more about the issue—it could return at a later committee stop.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.