TAMPA (WFLA) – More than 60,000 more Florida families will be eligible to pay private schools with taxpayer funds under a new bill just signed into law.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7045 on Tuesday at St. John the Apostle Catholic School in Hialeah, the church of Florida Sen. Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah).
“We really believe that empowering the parents to be able to have the widest variety of educational choices for their kids is a recipe for success,” said DeSantis.
The bill combines several Florida scholarship programs, including the Gardiner and McKay scholarships for children with special needs, into the wider Family Empowerment Scholarship program. The bill also eliminates the need for students to attend public school before being able to use funds through a voucher or scholarship program.
The bill also raises the income eligibility by 25% for Family Empowerment Scholarships, allowing families who earn up to $100,000 to participate in the program.
Some parents like the choice to send their kids where they want and get taxpayer funds to do it. Others say the program lowers the quality of public schools by reducing their funding.
Demaris Allen Bridges is a mother of two and former president of the Hillsborough PTSA. She says using taxpayer funds for private school vouchers leads to fraud, discrimination, and no accountability for what kids are being taught.
“So I can opt to homeschool my kids, and then I can get a card with basically $7,000-plus dollars,” said Allen Bridges. “I can choose to use that on services for my child or I can use it towards his college education.”
The $200 million expansion allows qualifying parents to use taxpayer-funded public school education dollars to pay for tuition and expenses at private and home schools. Some parents can also use the money for a number of other student expenses, including college savings plans.
But parents can’t just do anything they want with the money, according to Scott Kent, Assistant Director of Strategic Communications for Step Up For Students, the organization that administers the scholarships in Florida.
“She’s referring to the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs, which unlike the other scholarship programs operates as an education savings account (ESA),” said Kent. “Gardiner families are not issued ‘cards,’ nor are they free to spend that money (through a card or otherwise) on anything they want. Parents can purchase from Step Up For Students’ online catalog of pre-approved educational products, or they can purchase items or services that are not on the pre-approved list.”
“However, that requires they submit a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student,” Kent said. “A review is then conducted by an internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps.”
Some parents oppose the bill because taxpayer dollars are funding schools that have discriminated against children with special needs or different sexual orientations.
Other parents whose children have attended private schools said they supported expanding the program.
“Isn’t the purpose of our taxpayer money for education to make our children the best educated so they can succeed in life?” asked Bryan Boliard, a Tampa man who sits on the board of a private school his child attended. “I believe parents have the best understanding of their child’s wellbeing and should have the choice to put their child in any school they want — public, private or charter.”