The Florida Legislature is moving toward a more expansive education landscape for students and families to go to private schools with public dollars.
The dollars, referred to as scholarships or vouchers, are part of programs being considered in the waning days of the 2021 legislative session.
Wednesday, the Florida House passed HB 7045, which would combine three different scholarship options into one while also raising the income level by which families can qualify for the vouchers.
Legislation in the Senate, SB 48, is slightly different, but maintains a similar goal of condensing the number of scholarships in Florida while expanding who could apply for them.
The bills are a part of a larger debate about whether public dollars should be used to send students to private schools, and to what extent is that okay.
Over the years, some of the programs have been controversial because of the use of public money, and teacher unions have been against some or all of the vouchers. But some families consider the scholarships as a lifeline for children who need a different environment.
Two of the scholarships in HB 7045, focus on students with disabilities and provide options to attend a private school that would have a better learning environment for their needs. One is called the John M. McKay Scholarship and the other is the Gardiner Scholarship.
These two scholarship options would be added into another existing scholarship, known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which is focused on lower-income families.
In addition, the bill allows those scholarships for families with higher incomes compared to previous qualifications.
The bill sponsor is Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican who represents part of Brevard County, and a stanch supporter of school choice. Choice usually means that students can go outside of a traditional neighborhood school zone.
“It’s not about low-income anymore,” Fine said about the bill Wednesday. “We are now creating that option for more people to make the right decision for them.”
Currently, the only students who could qualify for the Family Empowerment Scholarship, the one focused on lower-income families, were those whose income does not exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which the bill analysis identifies as $79,500 for a family of four.
The Federal Poverty Level is a used to identify which families qualify for particular federal and state programs based on income and based on the size of a family and their income.
HB 7045, which would combine all three of the previous scholarship programs would increase that threshold to 375 percent of the federal poverty level.
According to the Federal Poverty Level Calculator, that would include a family of four earning about $99,375 annually.
The bill does the same for another income-based scholarship called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, raising the income eligibility from 300 percent of the federal poverty level to 375 percent.
The House passed the bill Wednesday, despite some lawmakers who stated concern that there is less accountability for private schools in Florida to ensure students are getting a quality education.
A press release following the passage of the legislation in the House claimed that the the bill is the “largest expansion in school choice in the nation,” but it is not clear where that data came from or what metric House officials are using. The Phoenix reached out to the House for clarity and is awaiting a response.