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As Florida Passes Expanded Voucher Program, Opposition Eyes A Court Challenge

From left, Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran watch the passage of the school voucher bill in the Florida House on Tuesday, April 30, 2019.

A new program that would allow more Florida students to use taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school in Florida has passed — and is likely to end up in a court battle.

Senate Bill 7070, which passed Tuesday, creates the Family Empowerment Scholarship for an estimated 18,000 students in its first year and thousands more in subsequent years.

The debate over whether vouchers take money away from traditional public schools played out in the Legislature, with Democrats protesting passage of the bill. Republicans say they want more parents to be able to choose a school other than the public school in their neighborhoods.

“Everyone, I think, is anticipating there will be a court challenge,” POLITICO reporter Gary Fineout said Friday on The Florida Roundup. 

Twenty years ago, Florida became the first state in the nation with a statewide voucher program. In 1999, then Gov. Jeb Bush created a taxpayer-financed program to allow kids to attend private schools with public dollars.

Under that program, students in Florida's public schools could get vouchers of up to $3,389 to attend private schools.

The program was controversial, and by 2006 Bush’s signature achievement was declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court.

The court ruled that the state Constitution bars Florida from using taxpayer money to finance a private alternative to the public system, stating that the voucher program “diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools that are the sole means set out in the Constitution for the state to provide for the education of Florida’s children.”

Last week, Bush was present in the state House to witness Florida’s new voucher program pass.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship program would use public dollars for religious and other private schools and allow kids in middle-income families — families of four with annual incomes of $77,250 or below — to take part. It gives priority to lower-income students.

It was presented by Republicans as an expansion of the existing Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves nearly 100,000 low-income students, most attending religious schools, and has 14,000 more on a wait list. But that program is funded by corporate contributions that receive state tax credits. 

The Family Empowerment Scholarship program will be funded with tax dollars totaling $130 million. 

The House voted 76-39 to authorize the program. With a few exceptions, debate fell along party lines. The state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, backs Democrats and has expressed widespread opposition to the bill. The union is expected to organize a legal challenge.

"The fact of the matter is both sides smooth over rough spots in their arguments," Fineout said. "Part of this is there's a political element to it." 

Gov. Ron DeSantis is a strong supporter of so called ‘school choice’ and is expected to sign the bill into law.

And both Fineout and Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeff Solochek said Friday that legal challenges face a much different Florida Supreme Court than in 2006. They said the program is likely to survive.

Three justices who helped strike down Bush’s earlier voucher program no longer sit on the court.

DeSantis replaced them in January with conservative judges.

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