Video: Lawmakers advance school voucher bill.

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida lawmakers are pushing for an expansion of the state’s charter school voucher program. While legislature estimates put the cost of the expansion at just shy of $210 million for the state budget, policy impact analysts put the overall cost at roughly $4 billion.

For 10 counties in the Tampa Bay area, the voucher legislation, House Bill 1, could mean almost $850 million gets moved from public schools to charter schools in the 2023-2024 school year, according to estimates by the Florida Policy Institute.

CountyEstimated Reroute
Citrus$20.7 million
Hardee$3.3 million
Hernando$31.5 million
Highlands$10.8 million
Hillsborough$309.4 million
Manatee$58.8 million
Pasco$86.3 million
Pinellas$156.1 million
Polk$104.6 million
Sarasota$66.6 million
(Source: Florida Policy Institute)

Across Florida’s 67 counties, the amount of what the Florida Policy Institute calls “State Aid Rerouted through Vouchers” would be an estimated $3.93 billion going to private or charter schools.

“If the state does not increase revenue to cover the costs of students already in private education, then the reallocation of state aid to vouchers will leave school districts with significantly less revenue to fund the remaining public school students,” FPI reported.

Analysis of the impacts of HB 1 on state spending per student by the Education Law Center said funding changes could take away $900 per student in each of Florida’s school districts.

ELC also reported that the proposed legislation, introduced by Florida Reps. Kaylee Tuck (R-Lake Placid) and Susan Plasencia (R-Orlando), would potentially incentivize creation of new private schools, which it says all “operate with little oversight and no accountability.”

Going further, ELC said that Florida, compared to the rest of the U.S., has had a much higher growth level of new private schools. While the number of new private schools nationally has only gone up 9% in the past 10 years, the number has grown by 30% in Florida. Citing a federal study of private schools in America, ELC said it showed that the potential cost of universal vouchers amid rapid growth could lead to underestimating fiscal impacts.

“It is crucial for Florida lawmakers to understand what HB1 could do to the public schools and students in their districts,” Mary McKillip, ELC Senior Researcher, said. “The data we are providing are estimates, and costs could potentially go much higher. Florida is on the precipice of a devastating attack on the public schools.”

Part of the analysis by both FPI and ELC is through researching education trends in Arizona, the only other state that currently has a universal voucher program.

The cost analysis was based on Arizona’s universal voucher program trends, as compared to the current voucher program in Florida, according to FPI. While their initial estimates were based on the first version of HB 1, a newly filed committee substitute has led to FPI revising their cost prediction.

“The original estimate of $85 million for home education students is now higher because the HB1 cap on the number of these students who can receive an FES [Florida Empowerment Scholarship] voucher (10,000) is removed in the substitute bill (the FTC [Florida Tax Credit] voucher now has a limit of 20,000 students, but this does not extend to FES). Assuming a 75% participation rate of home education students, as with private school students (114,082), this would add a cost of $971 million.”

FPI said the Florida House bill analysis reported a 50% participation estimate, which it says is lower than a likely 75% of eligible students instead, based on how Arizona’s private schools have behaved with their universal voucher program.

“We are alarmed by the projected cost of expanding vouchers to a universal program. We are also extremely concerned by the speed at which this bill passed through committee, and the fact that this happened before the Office of Economic and Demographic Research has released its estimate on what HB 1 would cost,” FPI CEO Sadaf Knight said in a statement. “The evidence from the only state — Arizona — to so far implement a universal voucher bill is startling. That program has blown past initial state projections for cost by over 1,000% in under six months, and should serve as a warning for the Florida Legislature to slow down and fully understand the fiscal implications of these proposals.”

Due to the cost, the Associated Press reported that Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs was moving to reduce the program’s costs by restricting the number of students who may be eligible for it.

In their analysis of the Florida bill’s potential impacts, FPI notes that based on subcommittee presentations in the Florida Legislature in February, they have downgraded their FTC voucher estimate from a $1.9 billion cost to $1.1 billion.

The vouchers in this case are those used by students currently in private schools. The committee substitute makes a change that would require FTC vouchers be used before FES funding is allocated, reducing some of the funding accessed for each voucher type.

Still, all of the FPI and ELC estimates are for the school year of implementation, 2023-2024. The state legislature analysis is based upon a set number of students who will use the program in the first year.

“Given the incentives in all versions of the universal voucher bill – including the likelihood that new private schools will open given the promise of state funding with little accountability, the potential for families to turn to home education because they can now be compensated for it, and the possibility of drawing home educating and private school families from other states,” FPI reported. “The already severe burden on public school districts and drain on state funding can be expected to increase substantially in the coming years.”

Even with changes to policy from the new version of HB 1, FPI said the $4 billion estimated cost to Florida taxpayers remains.

While multiple groups, and Florida Democrats, oppose the voucher expansion, House Speaker Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) praised the legislation as an expansion of school choice and a way to help students “thrive.” He said in a statement that young Floridians remain in a struggle to read at their grade levels, citing how “nearly half” of third graders are not doing so, and calling it morally unacceptable.

“We must commit to a future in which every child masters the reading, math and general knowledge needed to reach their potential. To that end, we will improve resources for teachers and students, so that we can bring every child up to grade level,” Renner said in a statement as the March legislative session began.

His statement continued, saying that “to further that success, we must embrace educational freedom and customized learning. House Bill 1 gives every parent and student customized tools to learn and thrive. It also ensures that students with unique abilities have the resources they need to live more independent lives when they reach adulthood.”

So far, the bill has passed each of its committee hearings, most recently the Education Quality Subcommittee in the Florida House, though as a third committee substituted version.