Early in the legislative session, Republican senators proposed a new voucher program that would start out by serving up to 15,000 students from low-income families.
But by Thursday, the program called the Family Empowerment Scholarship had changed dramatically. It would allow up to 18,000 students to take part in 2019-20, and let wealthier families get scholarships so their kids can attend religious and other private schools with public dollars.
The changes come as lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee were trying to grasp what was happening next, as controversy continues over the new voucher program that would be financed by traditional dollars for public schools.
The Senate Appropriations Committee ultimately approved the revisions on Thursday, setting the stage for a vote on the voucher program in the full Senate.
The new voucher program is a part of a large education bill that covers several areas related to school policy and finances, but the biggest debate Thursday was over the Family Empowerment Program.
Republican State Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., who represents part of Miami-Dade and chairs the Senate Education Committee chair, explained that the number of the students went up to 18,000 because some students had earlier filled out applications that had not been completed.
As to the financial guidelines: Under the original legislation, students would be eligible for a scholarship if their family income was no higher than 260 percent of the federal poverty level.
That would be roughly $67,000 for a family of four, according to 2019 figures from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services — more than double the federal poverty guideline of $25,750 for a family of four.
Under the revised legislation, students could be eligible if their family income was up to 300 percent poverty – meaning $77,250 for a family of four. That figure begins moving into middle-class levels, though voucher programs have historically been for low-income families.
A House version of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program would expand eligibility over the years even more – to almost $100,000 for a family of four.
Though the eligibility guidelines would rise, very low-income students would still get first priority to get the scholarships, according to Diaz.