Vouchers for FL middle class families may be on the horizon

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The most expansive voucher proposal yet in the state capital would allow kids in Florida’s middle class families to get “scholarships” for private schools, pushing the parameters of voucher programs that have historically served low-income students.

The new “Family Empowerment Scholarship Program” proposed by the House Education Committee would allow students, at first, to be eligible for a scholarship if their family household incomes do not exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

That would mean $77,250 for a family of four, according to current federal government guidelines, and three times the base poverty level of $25,750 for a family of four.

But there’s more: The House proposal would continue to bump up the poverty figures, allowing more and more wealthier families to become eligible for vouchers that would pay for private school using public dollars.

The income level allowed for a scholarship would move up to $83,687 (325% of poverty) in 2020-21; $90,125 (350% of poverty) in 2021-22 and $96,572 (375% of poverty) in 2022-23 and thereafter, according to the legislation.

Those figures exceed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ voucher proposal – called the Florida Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program — as well as the Senate Education Committee’s voucher plan and are far higher than the median household income in Florida and the United States.

That median has been below $60,000 in recent years, according to U.S. Census data. Other states, too, are starting to make middle-class families eligible for vouchers.

In addition, the House proposal would push for 28,000 new scholarships for the 2019-20 school year. And the number of new scholarships in any school year may not exceed one percent of the public school enrollment for that school year, according to the House legislation.

The bill prioritizes who can get the scholarships first.

For example, a top priority would be new scholarship applicants whose household income does not exceed 185 percent of poverty ($47,638) this year.

The scholarships would be funded by general revenue dollars typically used to fund traditional public schools, according to the legislation, and many educators and teacher unions will likely fight against using those dollars.

If approved, the voucher proposals in the Legislature would be an unprecedented expansion of private school vouchers in Florida and likely would spur lawsuits.

The House Education Committee is scheduled to consider the voucher legislation Thursday afternoon.

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