A day after welcoming President Donald Trump for a rally in the Florida Panhandle, Gov. Ron DeSantis spent Thursday touring the state holding his own rallies in support of a bill creating the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program — a new voucher program that will cover 18,000 students in its first year — before ending the day with a bill signing ceremony at a private school in Miami Gardens.
Before signing the legislation in South Florida, DeSantis made stops at private schools in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg to tout the benefits of the scholarship program.
“Let’s empower parents,” DeSantis told the crowd in Jacksonville. “Let’s allow them to make the decisions, and I think that is going to mean more achievements in the future for all of our students.”
The Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, which was a priority for DeSantis in his first legislative session, is intended to help reduce the number of children on waiting lists for vouchers. But, what makes this voucher program different is it opens the doors to kids in middle-income families to take part in the program. In the past, vouchers were predominantly geared to low-income students. Although, the legislation gives priority to very low-income students.
After starting out its first year offering 18,000 of the scholarships at a cost to the state of more than $130 million, the number of scholarships would increase after that by .25 percent of the total public school enrollment. Using current enrollment numbers, that would translate into about 7,100 additional students.
“I personally believe, as a matter of philosophy, that parents know what’s best for their kids,” DeSantis said at the Miami bill signing. “What this will do, in one fell swoop, you’re offering opportunity for thousands and thousands of low-income students.”
The new voucher program comes 20 years after the creation of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first statewide voucher program in the U.S. in almost 50 years.
But that program was challenged in the courts and was struck down by a more liberal-leaning Florida Supreme Court.
The new Family Empowerment Scholarship Program will likely also be challenged in the courts. In addition to the voucher program, the legislation revamps the Best and Brightest teacher-bonus program. The state’s teachers union opposes both the voucher plan and the teacher bonus program, seeing it as a way to avoid addressing teacher salary increases.
“Lawmakers are pouring $130 million, to start, into a new voucher program that will pay unaccountable private and religious schools straight out of taxpayers’ pockets. They are funding a bonus scheme instead of fair, competitive salaries that will allow us to recruit and retain teachers and school staff,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram. “I need to believe that state leaders want Florida’s students to succeed but, given the evidence, I’d say they’re setting our students and neighborhood public schools up for failure in the near future.”
But, the Florida Supreme Court went through a makeover earlier this year when DeSantis filled three vacancies on the state bench. He appointed three conservative justices and the court is now seen as one of the more conservative in the country.
It was a point that wasn’t lost on Republican lawmakers during their 61-day session.
“I think we have a new (Florida) Supreme Court and I don’t think we would ever tried what we did this year under the old Supreme Court because we know it would have gone right into the ditch,” Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said at the close of session.