DeSantis signs school-choice bill that lets more kids into private schools on public dollars

Catholic school
Students can get scholarships, or vouchers, for Catholic schools in Florida. Credit: Creative Commons

More Florida families will have the opportunity to send their children to private schools on public dollars now that Gov. Ron DeSantis has approved legislation raising cap on the household income eligibility to participate in school choice scholarship programs.

During a press conference Tuesday, DeSantis signed HB 7045 into law as Republican officials including bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican who represents part of Brevard County, and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran looked on.

“There’s going to be more opportunity for more students and more families throughout the state of Florida as a result of this legislation. That’s a good thing,” DeSantis said.

There actually were two press conferences about the legislation Tuesday. One took place at St. John the Apostle Catholic School in Hialeah, located in the district of Sen. Manny Diaz, a Republican who represents part of Miami-Dade County and who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. He was there, too.

The other press conference occurred in Jacksonville at Christ the King Catholic School. Several other Republican lawmakers joined him for the press conference, including Sen. Aaron Bean, a Republican who represents Nassau County and part of Duval County.

Some parents look to private schools if they feel that the public education system is not best suited for their children, including those with special needs. Others seek religious instruction. Others simply do not like their neighborhood school and want to enroll their kids in a different one.

The legislation condenses the number of scholarship programs Florida offers while also raising the wealth cap for more families at a higher income to receive these taxpayer-funded scholarships.

Lower income families will be prioritized. Families who make under 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (about $49,025 for a family of four) are first in line. But families at or under 375 percent (about $99,375 for a family of four) of the federal poverty level would also be eligible.

Even higher-earning families could qualify if too few families participate. Should 5 percent of available scholarships go begging in any fiscal year, eligibility would expand to 400 percent of the poverty level. For a family of four, that would mean income of about $106,000.

Critics question whether middle-class families should receive these scholarships if they have the means to attend a private school without them.

The Florida Senate Democratic Caucus opposed the legislation. “By signing this bill into law, Gov. DeSantis is taking Floridians’ hard-earned tax dollars and diverting them out of public schools,” members said in a written statement.

DeSantis insists the money is “not going to any institution, it’s going to the parents,” to give them the ability to make decisions about their children’s education.

He argued that his administration has supported public education too, citing initiatives to raise the base pay for Florida teachers and to provide $1,000 bonuses for teachers who worked through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re supporting it all,” he said.

“I think different families have different needs,” DeSantis continued. “I don’t think it all comes in the same form.”