The elimination of the income cap in Florida’s expanded school voucher program means that even millionaires are now eligible to have their child’s private school tuition bill covered by taxpayers.
As most Florida students head back to school this month, there’s growing concern over the cost of Florida’s universal school voucher program, which could cost the state between $2.5 and $4 billion, according to various estimates.
Gov. Ron DeSantis in March signed into law Education Bill (HB 1), a major expansion of Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship program. The law makes every student in the state eligible to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher or an education savings account (ESA) to apply towards the cost of private school. HB 1 made the Sunshine State the latest–and largest–jurisdiction to offer universal school choice after West Virginia, Arizona, Utah, Iowa and Arkansas.
Before passage of the new law, which some are calling the biggest school-voucher giveaway in American history, around 80,000 Florida students participated in the program that provided the student’s family with an average annual voucher of approximately $7,600 to apply to the cost of private school tuition. The program included an income cap, however, limiting the vouchers primarily to middle- and low-income families.
But HB 1, which went into effect July 1st, promises taxpayer-funded vouchers worth nearly $8,000 to all 2.9 million students attending Florida public schools and the more than 400,000 students currently attending private schools, regardless of income or need, while also offering assistance in the form of ESAs to homeschoolers. The elimination of the income cap means that even the children of millionaires are now eligible for the vouchers.
According to Step Up for Students, one of the organizations that manages the state’s scholarship program, about 240,000 income-based scholarships have already been awarded to students so far for the 2023-2024 school year, compared to the approximately 170,000 that were given out last year.
Another 68,379 scholarships have been distributed under the FES-Unique Abilities program, which provides grants of about $10,000 each to students with disabilities.
The state won’t know exactly how much the voucher programs cost until October, when the Florida Department of Education certifies its full-time equivalent student survey, which counts the number of students attending public schools. But an estimate from the Florida Policy Institute suggests the expansion could cost the state $2.5 billion in the first year. The number could be even higher though, as an estimate from the Education Law Center before the law passed estimated it could cost Florida taxpayers as much as $4 billion.
Whatever the amount, opponents claim it is too much for Florida’s already critically underfunded public schools. In fact, according to the Education Data Initiative, Florida spends $9,983 per pupil in its public schools, less than 41 other states. This earned the Sunshine State an “F” grade from the Education Law Center.
For this reason, Democratic lawmakers and teachers’ unions have strongly denounced HB 1, as they claim that it would drain much-needed money from a public school system that educates nearly 90% of the state’s students.
“HB 1 will make a bad situation worse, as our public schools have long been underfunded and understaffed,” Florida Education Association (FEA) said in a press release.
Proponents of the law claim that the vouchers can be used to offer parents a choice in where to send their children to school, but opponents of HB 1 point out that participating schools can maintain discretion in selecting individual students—and even discriminate against and deny admission to certain students. So, while it’s true that any family can receive vouchers, this doesn’t guarantee that students will be placed in the school of their choice.
Florida Rep. Johanna López (D-D43) is among those who believe HB1 is “dangerous.”
“[It] makes education inaccessible for the very students’ school choice was created to help,” the former teacher and former Orange County school board member wrote on Twitter. “Our public schools need help and HB 1 does the opposite.”
Some education advocates view the voucher expansion as just one part of DeSantis’ legislative attack on public schools in recent years. Meanwhile, Florida teachers’ salaries remain among the lowest in the nation.
“When I taught in New York before moving to Florida, I made two thirds more than I made here. Teachers in Miami-Dade County are not well paid,” Sylvia Vera-León, a former K-12 teacher in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, told Floricua.
This situation may explain Florida’s massive teacher shortage. As of April of 2023, there were more than 5,294 teacher vacancies, according to the state education association. This is more than double the 2,217 vacancies reported in January 2019, when Gov. DeSantis took office.
“I know from experience, because my daughter is an art teacher, that she doesn’t want to stay here, because there is no fair remuneration, nothing to gain,” Vera-León added.
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