TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — As the Florida legislature’s special session enters another day, thousands of special needs students are waiting on lawmakers to lift a cap on the number of students allowed to participate in Florida’s school voucher program.
According to State Senator Jay Collins, 8,839 special needs students are still waiting on vouchers to pay for their education.
“This is the right thing to do,” Senator Collins said about the idea of expanding the school voucher program. “The more we can do to help give them that opportunity to let them be the best version of themselves, that’s really what right looks like.”
HB 1, which was passed in early this year, allows families with special needs students to use vouchers to pay for their child’s education, like tutoring, therapy or private schools. But there was a cap on the number of students that could use that money.
“What we found, as we’re coming into the second quarter is the projections were a little bit higher and quicker than what we expected and that’s fine,” Collins said.
Now, coordinating bills in the State House and Senate aim to lift that cap.
“This is a no-brainer, right?” said Collins. “We built the cap into that just to ensure that we could control the expectations and everything else, trying to limit the financial aspects.”
The Hillsborough County lawmaker is sponsoring the Senate bill.
“I have an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old,” Collins said. “My 11-year-old is autistic. We deal with unique abilities in my household. He’s also extremely gifted.”
Collins said the cap removal will only impact this current school year, 2023-2024. He said there will be a cap for future school years, which could be up for discussion in the future.
But private schools are feeling the pinch too — many vouchers go straight to the family’s school, which relies on that money.
“Many school owners have not been able to pay their employees or their operating expenses, such as rent or mortgage or utilities,” said Mary Josephine Walsh, the founder of the Florida Coalition for Private Schools, who also operates her own private school.
“How we are going to work things out with our budget at the end of the year is going to be very difficult to determine,” Walsh added. “We’re going to have to make some cuts somewhere, somehow.”
She said the money has been coming in much slower, if at all.
“There was more than just my school or a handful of other schools that were finding themselves in a difficult financial situation,” Walsh said.
The Florida House passed its version of the voucher bill on Tuesday, and the Senate is expected to take up its version on Wednesday.