A bill that would create a new voucher program allowing more Florida students to attend private schools by tapping into taxpayer money normally used for traditional public schools began moving Wednesday in the state Senate.
The Senate Education Committee voted 5-3 for the measure that would create the new Family Empowerment Scholarship, aimed at tackling a waiting list of thousands of lower-income students hoping to use an existing private school voucher program. Initial enrollment would be capped at 15,000 students but could increase in later years.
Unlike that program, the new one would use money that is currently spent on public schools based on district enrollment. It's a top priority for Republican leaders — including those in the House — and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis who favor giving parents greater school choice for their children. Eligibility would be capped at 260 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $65,000 for a family of four.
"This is not something for the few, or the privileged. This is something that goes to families in need," said Sen. David Simmons, a Republican from Longwood. "We're providing opportunities for these families to go ahead and choose what's right for them."
Opponents, however, say it could siphon away money crucially needed by traditional public schools and may be unconstitutional. All three committee Democrats voted against the bill, which is also opposed by the Florida Education Association teachers' union and other groups.
"The struggling traditional public schools need that funding to improve," said Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa. "We need more of that, not another new voucher program."
A similar program enacted under former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush that directly used public money for vouchers was struck down in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court. But DeSantis has appointed three new justices since his election, tilting the high court in a decidedly more conservative direction and possibly opening the door for favorable ruling on the new voucher program.
Opponents also contend it's wrong to spend public school dollars on vouchers because private schools are not held to the same standards in areas such as teacher credentials and student outcomes. But supporters say it's vital to give parents choices because students have a wide variety of needs in obtaining a quality education.
"This bill gives parents the power and the options to choose what's best for their children," said Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican.
Currently about 100,000 students in Florida use existing voucher programs to attend private schools, including religious schools, supporters said.
Another key piece of the bill would end the practice of using teachers' past SAT and ACT test scores when they are being considered for be considered for recruitment and retention bonuses under what's called the Best and Brightest program. The practice has been widely criticized because these scores can be decades old for a veteran teacher.
But the teachers' union and other opponents said a better option would be simply raising the base salaries paid to teachers instead of bonuses that are not guaranteed from year to year.
"Instructional professionals need to be paid a base salary, and it needs to be a base salary that is at least at the national level," Cruz said.