A new “Family Empowerment Scholarship” voucher program would cost an estimated $110.8-million if 15,000 students take advantage of it to attend private and religious schools using public dollars.
And that amount would grow as the program takes on more and more students over the years.
At issue is that the money for the voucher program would come from the traditional pot of dollars used to fund public schools – what critics call a fundamental shift in the way Florida has paid for its voucher programs.
For example, Florida’s largest voucher program uses a tax credit approach rather than taking dollars from traditional public school funding.
Senate Democrats heard about the $110.8-million at a caucus meeting Wednesday morning, prior to heading to the Senate chamber to discuss the state budget.
And they were concerned about the money coming out of the longstanding formula used to fund public schools. Senate Democratic leader Audrey Gibson urged caucus members to get involved in the debate over how vouchers will be funded.
“Today is the day to ask questions,” said Gibson, who represents part of Duval County.
In the Senate chamber, Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson criticized the plan for a funding shift to pay for vouchers.
“That fundamental shift is we’re moving away from a Constitutionally approved method of funding tax credit scholarships to using FEFP (the formula used to fund public schools) dollars and general revenue for private institutions,” said Rouson, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Republican Sen. Rob Bradley represents a swath of north Florida counties and is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“I’ll leave it to Constitutional scholars to debate and discuss,” Bradley said. But he stressed that he is a product of public schools and that the Senate has treated public schools with respect in the budget process.
Both the House, Senate and the governor have proposed voucher programs this legislative session, with the House and Senate describing the program as a “Family Empowerment Scholarship.”
The House program would represent an expansion that would push eligibility for the scholarships into middle class families. Historically, such programs have focused on low-income students.
Critics have said the new voucher programs will likely lead to a court fight.