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How concerned should Floridians be about the cost of a universal school choice plan?

Martin Bureau
AFP/Getty Images

A Florida Senate cost estimate to create what’s called “universal choice” for Florida’s school voucher program has put the bill at $646 million. That’s $430 million more than what the Florida House originally estimated, but below the $4 billion figure proposed by an independent group. The newest estimate falls much more in line with the figures seen in other states with similar programs.

Arizona’s school voucher program is currently costing that state about $300 million and could go as high as $500 million. Recently, Florida’s democratic minority brought an Arizona state senator to discuss that state’s financial situation as a result of its voucher program.

“Our leadership last year and our majority side decided to expand vouchers without funding it," said Arizona Sen. Leader Mitzi Epstein. "Now, the state has a $200 [million] to $300 million hole in its budget...This is a hole that is not needed."

Arizona isn’t the only state grappling with a cost program. A recent estimate on a plan to let all kids in Ohio become eligible for school vouchers was recently priced at $1 billion, though that bill’s sponsor has taken issue with the estimate. In Florida, the move toward universal choice has been met with cheers from school choice backers like Tallahassee mom Sharyn Kerwin. She has used school choice for her daughter who has a medical condition.

“Throughout Grace’s K-12 journey, our family used a variety of school choice options, including hospital homebound schooling traditional brick-and-mortar and virtual education. Grace is now a thriving freshman at Lee University. Without flexible options, this would not have been possible,” Kerwin recently testified during a Florida Senate committee hearing.

Kerwin is a member of the Leon Moms for Liberty Chapter. For choice supporters, the potential financial impact of finally getting what advocates have called “universal school choice,” is worth it—no matter the cost. It’s something the state has worked toward for more than 25 years.

The Florida proposal would allow all children in the state to become eligible for a private school tuition stipend or education savings account that can be used on related expenses, regardless of their family’s income. The price of doing that has varied based on who lawmakers think will take advantage of the expansion. Not all families with kids attending private schools currently use the state’s scholarship and not all of them may want to—even though all of them would now qualify under the expansion. The same is true for home-schooling families—not all may want to tap into the program, especially because, after some changes, it now requires those families who may want to use an education savings account to register with one of the funding organizations. It’s also true that many families will also likely choose to stay put in their public traditional and charter schools, so getting an exact number for an estimate has been a challenge.

The Florida House has put the cost at about $210 million, based on the calculations above. The Senate has put the figure at $645 million based on a similar scenario. A Senate committee analysis of the bill includes a detailed breakdown of its figure. The state is essentially banking on the fact that a good chunk of that money will come from already-existing corporate tax contributions that presently flow into the state’s corporate tax scholarship voucher program—which families can use for private school scholarships. That leaves about $217 million left over that the state will have to fund out of its general revenue. Still, skeptical observers note that in making ALL children eligible, there should be an acknowledgment that all of the families currently attending private schools without scholarships may want to get one.

That’s the underlying assumption in a cost estimate of the proposal by the Florida Policy Institute, which has placed the cost of the expansion at $4 billion in its first year.

“It’s nonsensical to believe that half of the families currently paying to send their children to these private schools will not apply to get this free money. Of course, they will. Especially because this an ESA and they can spend it on more than just simple tuition," said Monroe County School Board member Sue Woltanski during a House committee hearing on the bill in February.

The proposal has been panned by public school supporters who worry it’ll further drain resources as children leave those systems.

“We appreciate the trailblazing. But if you’ve ever played Oregon Trail, you’ll know people die of dysentery. So we suggest maybe you take this a little slower,” said Leon Classroom Teachers Association President Scott Mazur as he likened the bill’s financial drain to a slow public-school death like those of the Oregon Trail game during the Senate committee hearing.

But Senate Bill sponsor Corey Simon has maintained his plan for universal choice keeps the focus on the kids and not the systems.

“Sen. Perry talked about if we were talking about spending $2b on public education right now everybody would have their hands up saying “yes, yes, yes, I vote yes.’ What we’re fighting over is funding a system, not students,” said Simon.

The Senate committee adopted the House version of the bill which creates an income priority—lower-income families would have first dibs on the scholarships. The measure also caps the number of homeschooling families than can qualify—it’s at 20,000 and is expected to grow each year. Those families would have to register with scholarship funding organizations in order to receive funding. The bill also creates a new school options portal under the Florida Department of Education—that’s where parents can shop for schools and see what they have to offer. Still, there are two main issues at play in the debate over expansion. The first is that private schools aren’t bound by the same state curriculum standards and teaching rules as public schools are—a point noted by Leon School Superintendent Rocky Hanna.

“We have a list of 30 subjects…when people want to talk about us teaching human growth and development—it’s because the legislature is requiring us to teach human growth and development…human trafficking, domestic violence, speak kindness to animals…the list goes on and on…private schools aren’t held to that standard, neither are charter schools.”

The second big hurdle to a truly universal school choice program is one of transportation. Tallahassee Classical School Principal Hope Carrasquilla says families want to come to her school, “but we’re too far away and they don’t have the means,” she said.

These two issues may have to wait another year, as Florida Republicans push forward with their universal school choice plan. The bill has already passed the full House and after this week’s final committee vote, it’s going to the full Senate chamber.

Follow @HatterLynn

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. 

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