The Florida legislative process 2021: Private and Public SchoolsThis is part of a series by the League of Women Voters of Citrus County (LWVCC) about Florida’s legislative process and issues.  The purpose is to increase citizen understanding and engagement.

Since Florida’s 2021 Legislative session opened on March 2, bills are rapidly moving through both House and Senate.  This column addresses a bill to expand “School Choice.”

SB 48, Educational Scholarships Program, proposes a massive expansion of  Florida’s private education options.  Florida already allows low-income parents to use publicly funded scholarship programs to place their children in private, mostly religious schools.  SB 48  has passed through committees and is nearing a vote on the Senate floor.

 

If passed, SB 48 will have a far-reaching impact on education in Florida.  SB 48 will:

  • Merge Florida’s five current scholarship programs into two, one for students with disabilities and one for all others, making the system easier for parents to navigate.
  • For the first time, use funds directly from the state budget to create prepaid Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) for parents of eligible children.
  • Offer parents wide spending flexibility within preapproved categories, including private school tuition; homeschooling curriculum and supplies; laptops, internet, and technology; tutoring, after-school and summer programs; transportation; even college savings. Children with disabilities would be eligible for additional services.
  • Increase eligibility income limits to include more families.
  • Increase scholarship amounts from 95% to 97.5% of per-pupil costs in public schools.
  • Build in annual growth for scholarship programs.
  • Decrease program auditing for the funds’ administrators, from annually to every third year, diminishing transparency and accountability.

Now called “Education Choice”,   SB 48 will allow families to take their children’s taxpayer-funded education dollars to the education provider of their choosing with minimal oversight.

League of Women Voters of Florida (LWVFL) opposes SB 48 with its expansion of school vouchers because of constitutional issues, lack of accountability, and fiscal impact on public education.

A strong public education system offering a high-quality education for all children is foundational to an equitable society. LWVFL supports Florida’s constitutional requirement to make adequate provision for the education of all children that is uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality. The League supports a free public-school system with high standards for student achievement and quality of educational opportunity for all, financed adequately by the state through an equitable funding formula. Floridians have entrusted the state to establish a Department of Education to set academic and teaching standards and use valid and reliable tests to measure achievement.

Private schools have no requirement for teacher certification, no oversight of curriculum materials or content, and don’t face the same testing requirements. Most don’t have to publicly report their standardized tests results or graduation rates.  Worse, they are free to discriminate against LGBTQ students and parents. About 66%  of Florida’s private schools are religious, with many operated for profit.

While every parent has the right to choose private education, the concern is choosing an alternative, unregulated school system at public expense. Unlike other expenditures of public funds, Education Savings Accounts for private, online and home-schooling offer no accountability to taxpayers. Transferring large sums of public education funding into individual ESAs lets parents pay private vendors who can profit from the ever-expanding edu-commerce marketplace. The legislature has not explained how Florida would provide real oversight of use of tax dollars for ESA spending.

The likely passage of SB 48 will divert more funds from public schools where the vast majority of Florida students are educated.  During a time of budget uncertainty and unprecedented challenges related to the pandemic, public schools need more resources and support to meet the needs of all students. Years of underfunding has contributed to teacher attrition and shortages.  One passage in SB 48 could also reduce available funding for long-needed, long-promised teacher raises.

Rather than increasing taxpayer funding to unregulated, unaccountable private education, the League recommends investing in high quality public education that remains accountable to taxpayers while serving all students.

 

LWVCC  encourages citizens to learn more about Florida legislation. Visit www.flsenate.gov and www.myflhouse.gov, and share your views with legislators:

Senate President Wilton Simpson (District 10), 850-487-5010, simpson.wilton.web@flsenate.gov.

Representative Ralph Massullo (District 34), 850-717-5034, Ralph.Massullo@myfloridahouse.gov.

 

LWVFL develops positions on issues only after careful study and consensus. LWV remains nonpartisan, never endorsing or opposing political parties or candidates.  Find us at www.lwvcitrus.org or www.lwvfl.org.