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DeSantis quickly signs voucher expansion

Over the summer, preparations for next school year are underway at Warrington Middle School, which must achieve a C grade to avoid becoming a charter school.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Over the summer, preparations for next school year are underway at Warrington Middle School, which must achieve a C grade to avoid becoming a charter school.

Calling the measure a “game changer,” Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday quickly signed a massive expansion of Florida’s school-voucher programs, while Democrats and other opponents continued to warn about the potential costs of the plan.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted along party lines Thursday to approve the proposal (HB 1), a week after the House passed it. The governor on Monday held an event at a Catholic high school in Miami to sign the bill, as lawmakers started the fourth week of the 60-day legislative session.

The bill will make every Florida student eligible to receive vouchers and eliminates current income-eligibility requirements. In touting the bill, DeSantis referred to a tiered “priority” system included in the bill.

“Now, primarily there will be a preference for low- and middle-income families, but at the end of the day, we fundamentally believe that the money should follow the student and it should be directed based on what the parent thinks is the most appropriate education program for their child,” DeSantis said.

The bill also is designed to allow home-schooled students to receive vouchers and will create what are known as “education savings accounts” that allow recipients to use voucher funds for purchases beyond private-school tuition. For example, the funds could be used on tutoring expenses and fees for various exams.

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

Democrats have argued the bill will have a grave financial impact on traditional public schools

House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, told reporters Monday the bill creates “two systems,” characterizing vouchers as “coupons that we’re giving to millionaires.”

“I'm personally concerned, and I think many in our caucus share this sentiment, that this could be devastating to Florida's public schools,” Driskell said.

With DeSantis widely expected to run for president in 2024, Driskell also pointed to the quick pace of the Legislature passing major priorities of the governor and Republican legislative leaders.

“Our suspicion is that he wants to get as many of his priorities out of the way so that they will already be passed, and perhaps he can even sign them into law before he makes his announcement and actually files to run for president,” Driskell said.

The Florida Education Association teachers union also criticized the voucher expansion.

“The universal voucher bill signed today by Gov. DeSantis will drain billions of taxpayer dollars away from the neighborhood public schools that nearly 90 percent of Florida’s parents trust to educate their children,” union President Andrew Spar said in a statement.

During the Miami event, DeSantis said lawmakers have raised funding for public schools every year since he’s been in office and touted an ongoing effort to raise teacher salaries.

House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, joined DeSantis at the event. Renner, who made the bill a major priority for the legislative session, highlighted the expanded ability of Floridians to enroll children in religious schools.

“Educational choice also means you have the ability to have your child go somewhere where they learn all the basics, but they also have their values and their faith respected. And that’s also very important,” Renner said.

Various organizations that supported the bill, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, also praised its signing.

“With only 53 percent of Florida third graders reading at or above grade level, it is clear Florida families and students need support and flexibility, and this bill empowers them to have tailored educational experiences rather than the current one-size-fits-all approach,” Florida Chamber President Mark Wilson said in a statement.

Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida