- Florida lawmakers are considering expanding school choice and access to education through taxpayer-funded school vouchers and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
- Critics of the proposal have raised concerns about the potential cost and elimination of current family-income caps for receiving vouchers.
- But state analysts say that the plan’s critics are double-counting students already paid for by public education funds, so those scholarships would have no fiscal impact.
- Similar parental choice and education savings account bills are being considered in more than a dozen other US states.
Florida lawmakers are moving forward with an innovative proposal to make all students in the state eligible for taxpayer-funded school vouchers and establish Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s), but critics are warning that the potential costs are being dramatically underestimated. While supporters of the bill argue that it would expand access to education, opponents raised concerns during a committee hearing on Thursday about the elimination of current family-income caps for receiving the vouchers and have raised questions about the estimated cost for the measure next year.
The surge in parental demand for educational choice and flexibility is not unique to Florida. Across the country, there is a growing movement to expand access to education through the use of ESA’s. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed the Students First Act into law on January 24, making Iowa the third state in the nation to provide universal ESAs to families. Utah Governor Spencer Cox also signed school choice legislation into law a few days later, adding to the growing number of states that are exploring the establishment of universal choice. Currently, bills to expand education savings accounts are being considered in more than a dozen states, including Indiana, Ohio, New Hampshire, Texas, and Virginia.
Despite the overwhelming national parental support, a policy debate is raging in Tallahassee about the cost of implementing the measures. Florida House analysts say that taxpayer-funded vouchers for all students in Florida would cost an additional $209.6 million next year, according to a recent report. But critics have claimed the costs will be much higher. State analysts countered that the reason the figure seems relatively low is because the estimate only needs to take into account the roughly 300,000 students who already attend private schools, about half of which already participate in the state’s current voucher programs. Current public school students who may elect to use a school choice scholarship are already funded in the Florida Education Finance Program, which is the main pot of money used to fund public schools. If a public school student switches over to be a scholarship recipient, it would have no fiscal impact from a state budget perspective.
The Florida Policy Institute (FPI), a left-wing non-profit group that opposes the voucher expansion, released their own report this month that said the bill could cost the state about $4 billion in the initial year. However, unlike the state’s estimate, FPI’s report adds in at least $890 million for 104,477 public school students that the state is already paying for anyway, and appears to use different estimates about the number of existing private school students already in the scholarship program.
Despite the budget dustup, the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday approved a revamped version of the measure (HB 1) which would also allow families to use education savings accounts for a range of purchases, including tuition and fees for tutoring services and fees for various exams. If passed and signed into law, the bill would allow any student who is a “resident of this state and is eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12 in a public school” to qualify. The revamped measure would allow 20,000 home-schooled students to receive vouchers next school year, which would increase by 40,000 students in each subsequent school year until July 2027.
The House measure will need approval from the Education & Employment Committee before it can go to the full House after the start of the session. House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, has made the issue one of his highest priorities this year. The bill has also been approved by the Education PreK-12 Committee this week in a similar Senate bill (SB 202). If signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the bill would go into effect on July 1.