Gov. Ron DeSantis signed new voucher legislation in South Florida Thursday, opening the door for thousands of families to get “scholarships” for children to attend private schools with public dollars.
The controversial program, called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, is popular with some families but spurned by teacher unions, traditional public school educators, and some taxpayers.
Critics have already begun to consider a court challenge that could end up at the Florida Supreme Court, with attorneys raising concerns about spending public dollars at religious schools and other issues.
But DeSantis, a Harvard-trained lawyer, said Thursday, “I think it will be upheld. I’m confident it’s constitutional.”
A public school graduate from Florida, the governor has been adamant about giving choices to families who want to send their children to schools other than a zoned neighborhood school. That would include charter public schools operated by private entities, and vouchers for private and religious schools.
“Parents know what’s best for their kids,” DeSantis said at the private William J. Kirlew Junior Academy in Miami Gardens.
Earlier Thursday, the governor launched an education tour at private Christian schools around the state, where he touted the new voucher program and promoted the agenda of a “Bold Vision for High Quality Education.”
The new vouchers add to a number of other programs in Florida that allow students to attend private schools with public dollars – including for religious schools.
DeSantis said he’s been in support of a new voucher program “for a long time.” Even before the spring legislative session began, the governor had proposed a similar voucher plan, which led to the Republican-led House and Senate approving the Family Empowerment Scholarship program.
“We’re giving the parents the choice to make use of this,” said DeSantis said.
The new program is significant because it will allow kids in middle-income families to take part in the program — not just low-income students that have historically participated. However, the legislation gives priority to very low-income families.
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. Use of that funding source has been widely opposed by public school advocacy groups, with critics saying it will drain much-needed dollars from traditional schools.
First Lady Casey DeSantis was at the bill-signing, as well as Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez and key lawmakers who spearheaded the voucher bill – State Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., of Miami-Dade, and State Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, who represents part of Lake and Orange County. Both lawmakers are chairs of the education committees in their respective chambers.