Twenty years ago, then Gov. Jeb Bush created a taxpayer-financed voucher program to allow kids to attend private schools with public dollars — only to see it declared unconstitutional in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court.
Tuesday, former Florida governor Bush stood in the state House chamber to witness a new and expansive voucher program that will likely face a court challenge:
The new “Family Empowerment Scholarship” program would use public dollars for religious and other private schools, and allow kids in middle-income families to take part in the program — not just low-income students that have historically participated.
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a staunch supporter of vouchers and other so-called “school choice” programs, also came to the House chamber, as did Senate President Bill Galvano, whose chamber already approved the bill earlier. The legislation will now go to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval.
While the Republican-led House had the clear majority, several Democrats sided with the GOP on the voucher bill. But most Democrats were vehemently opposed to the voucher program – calling it another “scheme” that will divert money from traditional schools. They believe the legislation will face a court challenge likely to lead to the Florida Supreme Court.
“Today is an exciting day in the Florida House, said State Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, the chair of the House Education Committee who shepherded the voucher program through the House both Monday and Tuesday. “It is not about public vs. private. It is about our students. It is about their future. It is about what is best for them.”
“We are giving parents real choice in this bill,” she said.
The legislation included a package of education measures that became the signature education package in the Legislature this session.
But what Sullivan called the “crown jewel of this bill” — the voucher program — took up most of the debate two days in a row, culminating in a vote of 76 yeas and 39 nays. Two lawmakers didn’t vote and there were three vacancies.
Among the Democrats who sided with the GOP on the voucher bill was Rep. James Bush III, a retired teacher representing a part of Miami-Dade who said he supports public schools. Rep. Bush said he favors empowering parents – many single moms live in his legislative district — to choose a school other than the public school in their neighborhoods. He said more than 2,000 students have gotten vouchers in his district.
State Rep. Kimberly Daniels, a Democrat representing part of Duval County, also voted with Republicans on the voucher legislation, saying her district is diverse and families favor a “school choice” approach in choosing a school for their children. Daniels also mentioned that the state already gives public money to certain programs, such as a pre-school initiative that allows families to choose private providers.
State Rep. Carlos Smith described the situation as, “the slow bleeding of public school dollars, which is happening in our state.” He’s a Democrat who represents part of Orange County.
The Florida Education Association, the statewide teacher union, have been pushing all session to help traditional public schools — such as the neighborhood schools that parents and grandparents used to attend years ago.
But nowadays, voucher programs and charter schools run by private entities sprinkle Florida’s landscape.
The new Family Empowerment Scholarship program would launch with 18,000 students in 2019-20. The number of scholarships would increase after that by .25 percent of the total public school enrollment, which would be about 7,100, based on current enrollment figures.
The cost, at first, would be about almost $140-million – money that would come out of the pot of money used for traditional schools.
Students are eligible for the new program if their family income is as high as 300 percent of the poverty level, meaning $77,250 for a family of four. That figures moves into the middle-class range – with Republican lawmakers using the term “working families.”
However, the program is designed to give priority to families with much lower incomes.
Florida isn’t alone in pushing the voucher programs into middle-class ranges.
Jason Bedrick is policy director of EdChoice, a nonprofit that does research and tracks initiatives such as voucher programs. He said there are several states that use the 300 percent poverty line for scholarship/voucher eligibility. Those are Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, and other states that set a percentage higher than 300 – Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs at EdChoice, noted that the 2006 “Bush v. Holmes” case in the Florida Supreme Court struck down then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s voucher program — but that hasn’t happened in all cases and in all states.
Language in other state constitutions do “allow a publicly-funded voucher system,” Hiner said.
“The key holdings in court rulings supporting vouchers … (focus) on the fact that the Legislature appropriates money for the purpose of funding a child’s education and the money flows from the state directly to the parent. Where and how a parent uses that money is the private and independent choice of the parent, subject to requirements that the money be used to fulfill the original purpose of the appropriation – to provide education for the child that meets the state’s educational standards.”
But Tallahassee Ron Meyer, lead counsel in Bush v. Holmes, said there’s very little doubt that the new voucher program approved by the Legislature Tuesday “is clearly unconstitutional” and “indistinguishable” from the Jeb Bush program decades ago.
Meyer said the court cases back then involved key rulings showing that the Bush voucher program would set up an unregulated system of schools using public money, and allow for publicly-funded vouchers to go to religious schools.
Meyer said he’s already heard from various advocates and organizations about launching a court case to block the new voucher program.
“We are certainly looking at the prospect” of filing a lawsuit, Meyer said.