Gov. Ron DeSantis signs education bill that creates a new private school voucher
Flanked by lawmakers, educators, parents and students who attend private schools, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a far-reaching education bill that creates a new private school voucher.
The new program, the “Family Empowerment Scholarship,” prioritizes vouchers for low-income students by using the state pot of per-student funding for public school.
“It’s done!” he said Thursday, as he signed Senate Bill 7070 with a blue Sharpie marker at William A. Kirlew Junior Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist K-8 school in Miami Gardens.
DeSantis spent the day crisscrossing the state, visiting private schools in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg to tout the bill, which gives access to the vouchers for families of four earning up to $77,000, or 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill creates a maximum of 18,000 new vouchers for a cost of about $130 million.
“I personally believe that parents know what’s best for their kids,” he said at the Miami Gardens school. “If you empower parents regardless of income, the parents will make the best decision.”
DeSantis has supported the idea since before his election, when he made a goal of ending the wait list for tax-credit scholarships. He said Thursday that the program was successful but has grown as large as it can.
The new program will offer similar opportunities for low-income families who want to send their children to private schools, he said.
“In one fell swoop, you’re offering more opportunity for thousands and thousands of low-income families in the state of Florida,” he said.
When the bill passed in the final days of the legislative session, Senate and House leaders applauded. The bill achieves a goal that has been sought by Republicans since Jeb Bush was governor. Bush was on the floor of the House when the bill came to a final vote, along with state Education Commissioner and former House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
“This is a big, big deal and it will go an awful long way,” DeSantis added Thursday.
The governor was flanked by education committee chairs Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, and Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, who spoke about the long process of making their bill a success.
Diaz said he has been a proponent of a voucher program since he entered the Legislature in 2012.
“Sometimes it’s not popular, but it’s the right thing to do,” he said, receiving rousing applause.
Sullivan said she was thankful for the parents who came to Tallahassee from all corners of the state to testify in front of her committee on behalf of the voucher programs.
“We see you. We have heard you. This bill funds you,” she said. “Parents, you now have that choice.”
Despite opponents’ concerns about accountability at schools other than district public schools, two similar bills in the Legislature that aimed to address some of those issues — both sponsored by Republicans — didn’t cross the finish line this session.
Diaz’s Senate Bill 1444 would have created a “disqualification list” of people barred from working in the state’s public, private and charter schools. That was designed to catch substitute teachers who perform poorly or behave inappropriately with students from being able to just move to a nearby charter or private school after they were fired by the district.
The bill would have also given the commissioner of education the power to revoke a private school’s ability to receive public-dollar vouchers, as well as permanently deny an owner’s ability to operate a private school in Florida, if the commissioner determined that they operated a school “contrary to the health, safety, or welfare of the public.”
On the topic of accountability, DeSantis said if the programs were unsuccessful or problematic, there wouldn’t be a wait list to get into private or charter schools on scholarships.
“The best way to judge success is knowing parents vote with their feet,” he said. “You wouldn’t have these good testimonials if it wasn’t successful.”
He did not address the section of the bill that creates a three-tiered bonus system for teachers. The three tiers are for new teachers who are experts in certain subjects that are needed in many districts; those rated “effective” or “highly effective” whose school has improved a certain amount over the prior three years, and teachers or other staff selected by the principal who must also have high evaluation marks.
DeSantis also didn’t address the part of the bill that expands the state’s program allowing certain charter schools to open near district public schools deemed as “persistently low-performing,” and the part of the bill that eases the requirement that new teachers pass a general knowledge exam, giving them more time to pass the test and limiting the fees charged for retaking it.