Expanded School Voucher Plan Advances in Florida Senate (FL)
April 15, 2011
A plan to expand school choice by creating education savings accounts — dubbed by some as “vouchers for all” — won a favorable vote from the Florida Senate’s education committee this morning.
The education savings account would be a pot of public-school money that parents could use to pay for private school, homeschooling services or pre-paid college plans. It would be available to current public school students who left the system and to some who were not enrolled in public schools.
“It recognizes that parents should have choices,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, sponsor of the savings-account measure, which he called a “GI bill for kids.”
Gov. Rick Scott and his advisers touted the controversial education savings-account idea earlier this year as an ultimate school-choice plan. But Scott later said he would not ask the Florida Legislature to approve it this session.
Negron filed his bill, he said, so parents could choose the best educational options for their kids. He said he is a “strong supporter of public education” who sends his three children to public schools in Mart in County.
“I get to make decisions with my wife for our children. But I don’t get to make decisions for the state of Florida’s children,” he said.
The bill, SB 1550, would let parents use state taxpayer money to pay for their children to attend private schools, including religious ones. The savings account money could also pay for homeschooling or tutoring services or college-savings plans. An identical House measure has not come up for a vote yet.
If the savings accounts were in effect this year, they would be worth about $3,100 each, the Senate estimated.
The concept for the new, and expansive, choice plan was devised by the Goldwater Institute in Arizona as a way to offer parents options outside public schools but meet the constitutional problems of earlier school-voucher programs.
Florida’s first private-school voucher program was struck down by the state supreme court in 2006. The court said the program violated state requirements for a “uniform” public school system and diverted “public dollars into separate private systems.”
Senate staff in their analysis of the bill wrote that the new plan could face court challenges. The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, has said it likely would sue, if such a plan passed because it violates the earlier court ruling. The union led the successful court battle against the now defunct voucher program.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, questioned how the state could be sure parents who used the savings account spent the money on legitimate educational services.
What would stop a family from deciding, “I’m going to keep my child home and just keep the money?” she asked. “How will we be accountable there?”
Negron said parents would never have direct access to the money but would be allowed to divert it only to approved providers.
The amount d eposited into the savings account would be equal to 40 percent of what the state spends to educate each student.
For each student who left the public school system, some of the remaining per-student state money would be made available to students not currently in public school. Those private or homes-schooled students could then enter a lottery to be eligible for an education savings accounts, too.
According to the staff analysis, the bill could save the state’s school finance program money but also would create additional work and expenses for the agencies overseeing it.
The bill passed unanimously, but Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, the lone Democrat on the panel, said he wasn’t convinced the concept was ready to become law.
“I’m going to vote for this bill,” he said, “but I want to tell you up front I have some serious questions and I look forward to some intense discussions.”