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Florida senators await estimates from state economists on a voucher expansion as cost concerns grow

 A kid works on a school project (file photo)
Lydell Rawls
/
WFSU Public Media
A kid works on a school project (file photo)

Cost is emerging as the biggest hurdle in Florida Republicans’ plans to expand the state’s school voucher program. Known as “universal vouchers” the proposal would allow all K-12 students in the state to become eligible for either a private school scholarship or an education savings account that can be used on education-related expenses. Now some lawmakers are expressing more hesitation about the potential price tag as other states with similar programs begin to face big problems.

Arizona blew its $33 million dollar estimate for its universal voucher plan by $450 million. A similar universal voucher bill in Ohio has come in with an expected cost of $1.13 billion.

Meanwhile, the Florida legislature is still wrangling with the cost question—after the House recently put that tab at only $210 million. Florida has more than three million students, while Ohio has 1.7 million.

“Let’s don’t play with this. How much is this expansion of vouchers going to cost us?” said Jacksonville Sen. Tracy Davis during Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee.

“At this time, we’re still waiting on the numbers from EDR [Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research],” replied Sen. Corey Simon (R-Tallahassee), the bill’s sponsor.

“There is some discrepancy between where EDR is with the Senate bill and the House bill and we’re still waiting to pull those questions together and make sure we’re giving an accurate count of this bill going forward.”

House bill sponsor Kaylee Tuck (R-Lake Placid), in a hearing of the bill before that chamber’s House Education and Employment Committee, told members she had not yet consulted with EDR regarding the House’s $210 million estimate for the voucher expansion bill.

“It’s difficult for me to make a decision to vote for a bill when I don’t have the data,” Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando) told Simon during the chambers’ committee hearing Wednesday.

Thompson also questioned why the state is removing income caps from a program that’s traditionally been about supporting low-income students. That issue is quickly becoming a point of contention—how much of the income caps should be lifted? Simon calls it a matter of point of view, and says “we’re funding the student. And that’s not predicated on what the family has, it’s based on what our obligation is to the young people of this state.”

But Thompson’s point on income levels is also a concern for Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“If you have a family that’s very high income, they have school choice. They don’t necessarily need to be eligible for the program, they are eligible, they can go and pay tuition and do it,” DeSantis said while speaking to reporters after his State of the State address.

The governor says he supports school choice and will likely sign the bill in whatever form it comes, “but I also know we’re in a situation [where] we have limited number of seats that we can accommodate in private school. I’d like to see the focus remain on low income but even getting into the middle and even some higher middle class.”

In high-cost cities like Miami, says DeSantis, even people making $150,000 or more a year can still struggle, especially if they have multiple kids.

Lawmakers did make a few more tweaks to the bill, adding an amendment that would punish operators, directors and owners of private schools if they close in the middle of the. The House has amendment its bill to create a tiered income structure that would keep the focus on low- and middle-income kids. The House also added provisions that loosen regulations on public schools, which is in line with the Senate version of the bill.

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative.
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