In many ways, Florida is leading the way when it comes to educational freedom. Over 150,000 Florida students are currently utilizing programs that allow them to take a portion of their K-12 education dollars to the private education provider of their choice. And last year, the state passed the largest expansion of private school choice in U.S. history.
But the Sunshine State may not be done yet. The Florida Senate Education Committee recently passed a bill, introduced by State Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr. (R), to expand funding provided directly to students instead of systems. The committee voted along party lines to advance the bill. Senate Bill 48 would still need to pass the full State Senate and House and be signed by the governor to become law but it looks like another positive development for students and families.
The bill would merge Florida’s five existing private school choice programs in the state into two: the Family Empowerment Scholarship program and the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship program. Each of these programs would be modified into an education savings accounts.
Education savings accounts are similar to private school vouchers in that a portion of a child’s state-funded education dollars would be able to follow them to the private school of their family’s choosing. But education savings accounts also expand families’ abilities to customize their children’s educational experiences by additionally allowing them to spend these dollars on other approved education services, including private tutoring, instructional and testing materials, special needs therapies, and home-based education.
In this sense, the legislation would allow eligible Florida families to access “education choice” as opposed to just “school choice.”
The bill would also eliminate the requirement that students switch out of a public school to be eligible for the Family Empowerment Scholarship and McKay programs. This change makes sense: low-income families who sacrificed to pay for private education out of pocket before they had access to these programs shouldn’t be penalized. Families should be able to take their children’s education dollars to the education provider of their choosing regardless of the type of school their children attended in the past. And requiring students to switch out of public schools creates a perverse incentive for families to switch their children into public schools for a year just to gain eligibility, which could unnecessarily disruptive to a child’s educational experience.
The change would also additionally allow homeschooled students from low-income families to be eligible for the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program going forward.
SB 48 also increases the chances that funding will be able to cover demand from families. Because the existing privately funded tax-credit scholarship programs would be merged with the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship Program and families will be able to take a portion of their children’s taxpayer-funded K-12 education dollars to the education provider of their choosing without having to solely rely on private donations.
Additionally, the Family Empowerment Scholarship award would increase from 95 percent to 97.5 percent of the amount of operational funding public school students receive from the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), which accounts for about three-quarters of total funding. This scholarship amount would be estimated to be around up to $7,600 per student in the 2020-21 school year.
Although the bill generally moves in the right direction towards expanding educational freedom for families, it also caps the McKay Scholarship Program for students with special needs to 50,000 students in the first year with a growth rate of 7 percent each following year. All students with an Individual Education Plan—over 300,000 students in the state—are currently eligible to receive McKay Scholarships. However, in no year since the inception of the program two decades ago has more than 32,000 students used the program, and program use has remained steady—about 30,000 students each year—in the last seven years. In other words, this change on paper appears to be a non-binding constraint in practice.
Senate Bill 48 is a step in the right direction and further expands educational freedom in Florida, but more needs to be done. Every single family should be able to take their children’s education dollars to the education provider of their choice, not just the families with children who meet certain state eligibility requirements.
Every single student has unique needs and every single family should have educational options. Let’s fund all students directly to give them better access to those options.
You can find an interview with author Corey DeAngelis and Senator Manny Diaz Jr, the sponsor of SB 48 here.