Senator Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) recently filed a bill which attempts to impose on private schools accepting state-funded vouchers the same academic and oversight standards that public schools must meet.
She said her proposed Senate Bill 254 would require “uniformity among public, private and charter schools,” pointing out “there are various inconsistencies in requirements for the three types of schools in Florida Statute.”
Over the years, some have warned that giving public money to private schools will lead to more government control over the private schools, potentially taking away the very things that led parents to choose a private education over a public one for their children in the first place.
Is that what this proposed bill would do?
SB 254 would mandate that all schools must uniformly comply on multiple standards. The bill would require all instructors to have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree. It would also require private schools to meet the state guidelines on construction, to which public and charter schools already comply. Finally, it would require private schools to follow state academic standards, administer state exams to an eligible percentage of students, receive state grades, and require at least 20 minutes of recess for primary schools.
Stewart said, “I’m not trying to limit the options that alternative choice schools seek to offer but address the lack of accountability for the sake of all children. Regardless of school choice there should be qualified instructional personnel, and not substandard conditions, which is irresponsible use of tax dollars, and it’s up to the legislature to do something about it. We owe this to all the children.”
Stewart filed similar bills in 2019 and 2020 that failed to advance in committee. Her 2021 bill was forwarded to Senate Education and Appropriations committees and the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
Under current Florida law, private schools do not have to meet standards for public schools. They establish their own system of school accountability, grading, reporting and evaluating.
During the 2019-20 school year, 3.274 million PK-12 students were enrolled in Florida schools, with 2,876,042 (87.8 percent) in public schools and 397,970 (12.2 percent) in private schools.
According to the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) of those private school students, 111,219 are attending 1,870 private schools with funding from the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) program, the state’s largest school choice voucher plan. During the 2019-20 school year, $670 million were awarded, with each student getting a maximum of $7,408. This reflects an enrollment increase of 6.8 percent from the previous school year.
The FTC was established in 2001 to encourage private, voluntary contributions from corporate donors to non-profit scholarship funding organizations that award scholarships to children from low-income families, according to FDOE.
In 2019, however, there were over 15,000 students on FTC’s waiting list. At Governor Ron DeSantis’ request, lawmakers created the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES).
Under the FES, for the first time, private school vouchers are funded by the state at 95 percent of the full-time equivalent allocation for public school students – $7,250 – with increases capped at a quarter-percent of the state’s K-12 population annually from a base enrollment of 18,000 students. During the 2020 session, lawmakers adopted HB 7067, broadening expansion of FES vouchers to one percent.