An unprecedented expansion of school vouchers across Florida? Lawsuits are likely to follow

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Setting up the potential to reverse a 13-year-old court ruling that blocked the expansion of school vouchers, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday outlined a dramatic new “scholarship” program that would allow thousands more students to attend private schools with public dollars.

The program, called the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship,” is scarce on details, but DeSantis wants to start off by helping about 14,000 kids who have been on a waiting list in connection with another program called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Later on though, the new program will blossom, allowing 1 percent of Florida’s public school enrollment statewide to receive Equal Opportunity Scholarships if students are eligible. That would mean about 28,000 students, based on the current statewide student population of about 2.8-million.

But each year after that, the number of scholarship students would grow by an additional 1 percent of statewide enrollment, according to the governor’s office.

And unlike corporate donations for the tax credit scholarships, the new Equal Opportunity program would be funded the way traditional schools are funded – with so-called general revenue dollars that are largely from sales taxes. Lottery dollars and other funds also go into the state pot for schools.

The scholarship amounts would be a “slight discount” of the per-student funding in each district, according to the proposal. The statewide per-student average is about $7,400 this academic year.

The new scholarships, often called vouchers or voucher schemes by critics, come as traditional public schools are fighting for higher pay and benefits and public charter schools overseen by private groups have grown significantly over the years.

And in addition to the tax-credit scholarships, Florida has scholarships for disabled students, students with special needs, bullied students and students needing help with reading. Those kids usually can attend private schools using those scholarships.

DeSantis’s plan would largely recreate an “opportunity” scholarship program similar to the initiative launched by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush’s school voucher program was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006.

In a majority opinion, former Justice Barbara Pariente said the voucher program “diverts public dollars into separate, private systems…parallel to and in competition with the free public schools.”

“This diversion not only reduces money available to the free schools, but also funds private schools that are not ‘uniform’ when compared with each other or the public system,” Pariente wrote.

But former Justice Kenneth Bell dissented, writing “every child in Florida has the opportunity to receive a high-quality education and to ensure access to such an education by requiring the Legislature to make adequate provision for a uniform system of free public schools. There is absolutely no evidence before this court that this mandate is not being fulfilled.”

The key is now Pariente is no longer on the state’s highest court. And as one of his first acts as governor, DeSantis appointed three new justices, establishing a solid conservative majority on the court. The newly constituted court is much more likely to agree with Bell’s reasoning than Pariente’s.

And if a new state-funded voucher program is passed by the Republican-majority Legislature this year and upheld by the courts, it could eventually lead to an unprecedented expansion of vouchers across Florida.

Some voucher advocates would like to see the scholarship programs expanded to include students from higher-income families. Others advocate for a “universal” voucher system, giving all Floridians the option to use state funding to send their students to public or private schools or other educational programs.

At a press conference at a private Christian school in Orlando, DeSantis said he is “open to doing it different ways,” while saying it would be some type of “hybrid” of the existing scholarship programs.

One option for the governor would be to create a new scholarship program based on “educational savings accounts.” It would allow parents to deposit the state funding into an account, which they could use for private tuition, tutoring or other authorized educational purposes.

Voucher opponents slammed DeSantis’s proposal.

“Voucher schemes, often termed ‘scholarship’ programs, fail to adequately serve our students,” the Florida Education Association said in statement. “Thirty-five percent of students who receive a voucher in the form of a tax credit scholarship only participate in the program for one year. An additional 23 percent stay for only two years.”

“Test data shows that when these students return to the public schools, they have worse performance in reading and math than students who never participated in the program,” the FEA said.

The FEA, which is the largest teachers’ union in the state, successfully led the legal challenge of Bush’s voucher program in 2006.

Senate Democratic Leader Designate Gary Farmer said in a statement Friday that DeSantis and new Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran “revealed their true intentions to fully privatize Florida’s K-12 education system. This is an unconstitutional and transparent attempt to institute universal vouchers in Florida and conclude a twenty year assault on public education.”

He added that putting state funds “directly into the pockets of unaccountable private institutions directly contradicts the precedent established by the Florida Supreme Court in Bush v. Holmes, violates the Florida Constitution’s ‘no aid’ provision, and subverts the mandate to provide a ‘uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools’ for our children. I will fight this attempt to flout our Constitution tooth and nail on behalf of every parent, teacher, and student in our state.”

Meanwhile, former governor Jeb Bush stated that DeSantis’s announcement on the new scholarship program “speaks to his passion for empowering parents and helping students access a quality education and achieve long-term success in college and career. I applaud the Governor’s leadership and look forward to a future where every hard-working family has the ability to choose a school that works best for their children.”

In defense of his plan, DeSantis cited a study from the Urban League, showing the benefits of Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program.

Students who spent four or more years in the program were 37 to 43 percent more likely to attend a college than similarly disadvantaged students attending public schools, the report showed.

DeSantis also noted that nearly 70 percent of the students using the tax-credit scholarships were either African-American or Hispanic students.

“This is trying to bring opportunity to everyone regardless of income, regardless of race or ethnicity. I think it’s been a really great success for the state of Florida,” he said.

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