Gathered in the assembly hall at a Miami Gardens religious school, parents, religious leaders, lawmakers and a mass of schoolchildren cheered.
“It’s done!” said Gov. Ron DeSantis, as he took a blue Sharpie to Senate Bill 7070, a far-reaching education bill that creates a new private school voucher — a goal of Republicans since the Jeb Bush era.
The program, dubbed the “Family Empowerment Scholarship,” prioritizes vouchers for low-income students by using the state pot of per-student funding for public schools. It gives access to the vouchers for families of four earning up to $77,000, or 300 percent of the federal poverty level, and creates a maximum of 18,000 new vouchers for a cost of about $130 million.
In a new survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 prominent political and policy figures from across the state, the response to the new state program was mixed: 41 percent said they support using state funds for private-school education, while 43 percent said they don’t. The remaining 16 percent were unsure.
Influencers who support it say giving parents options is important, especially those who live in counties with struggling public education systems.
“Marrying kids to schools based on ZIP code is a 19th-century model in a 21st-century world,” said former state House Speaker Will Weatherford, now managing partner at Weatherford Capital.
Some of those who support the law maintain that accountability is still an important piece of carrying it out. 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.
Miami Sen. Manny Diaz Jr.’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 being fired by a school 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.”
Ana Lopez Blazquez, executive vice president of Baptist Health South Florida, said accountability and measuring outcomes will be “critical.”
University of Miami President Julio Frenk echoed the sentiment.
“So long as all educational providers receiving state funds have to meet accreditation and other standards to ensure quality, choice can be a good thing,” Frenk said.
On the topic of accountability, DeSantis said that if the programs were unsuccessful or problematic, there wouldn’t be a waiting 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.”
Influencers who don’t support the program say the root of the problem lies in using taxpayer dollars on privately run institutions.
“It is not only counter to the Florida Constitution but to what Floridians have demanded,” said Kerry-Ann Royes, president and CEO of YWCA Miami. “This undercuts the already grossly underfunded per pupil public education in our state.”
According to a new Florida Education Association analysis, the expanded use of vouchers will drain $131 million from Florida’s neighborhood public schools in the 2019-20 school year, adding up to a projected loss of more than $986 million over the next five years. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, one of the biggest school districts in the country and the largest in the state, may lose $235.9 million over five years. Florida already diverts more public funds to private and religious schools than any other state in the nation, according to the FEA.
University of Miami professor Xavier Cortada said he thinks the new program is “all that is wrong with society.”
“The model of taking tax dollars away from public education and funneling it to private individuals stems more from the need to feed a private greed than do the public good,” he said.
Those who said they weren’t sure where they stand struggled with the idea of how lawmakers will balance offering choice and providing adequate funding to support public education.
“Expanding quality school choices can be seen as a move in a positive direction, but we need to closely monitor the educational outcomes of students benefiting from this program to ensure the program meets the long-term educational goals of our state,” said Miami Dade College Vice President and Provost Lenore Rodicio.
University of West Florida President Martha Saunders said the program seems like a “noble endeavor” but leaves unanswered questions about accountability measures and additional support services such as transportation or after-school care.
“As always, the devil is in the details,” she said.