school choice

Senate votes to expand Family Empowerment Scholarship

school choiceThe Senate Education Appropriations subcommittee voted 5-3 today to bolster and align two state scholarship programs that provide education choice to economically disadvantaged students.

SB 1220, a bill that spells out rules for teacher training and qualifications, also includes provisions aimed at aligning policies between the new Family Empowerment Scholarship, adopted last year and serving 18,000 students, and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, created in 2001 and serving 108,000 students.

Both scholarship programs serve students from lower-income and working-class families. The primary difference is that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is funded by corporations that receive a 100 percent tax credit, and the Family Empowerment Scholarship is funded directly from the state education budget.

The bill adopted today included an amendment proposed by Education Committee Chairman Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, that would increased the allowed enrollment growth in the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Under current law, the program can grow by up to 0.25 of total public school enrollment each year, which is roughly 7,000 students. His amendment increases the amount to 1 percent, or roughly 28,000. It also maintains the current income eligibility rules for Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. In that program, household incomes must not exceed 260 percent of the federal poverty level. An earlier version of the bill increased that percentage.

Other changes include:

  • Allowing Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students to continue receiving the scholarship until they graduate from high school or turn 21, aligning it with the Family Empowerment Scholarship provision. Now, Florida Tax Credit students must reapply each year.
  • Allowing any Florida Tax Credit Scholarship student to transfer to the Family Empowerment Scholarship, as long as he or she attended a public school the year prior to entering the program.
  • Allowing students in the Family Empowerment Scholarship program to take up to two state-supported virtual courses each year without cost. That provision already applies to Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students.

Diaz said the new bill seeks to continue what last year’s Legislature started: eliminating the wait list.

Present to speak in favor of the amended bill were stakeholders, including several parents and Elijah Robinson, a scholarship student from Jacksonville, who said the scholarship allowed him to escape the constant bullying at his public school that drove him to attempt self-harm.

“My life has completely changed from a year ago,” said Robinson, who will graduate this year from The Foundation Academy. “Please vote for this bill so that students like me can get help and not be forgotten.”

Michelle Porter, a mother of seven from Miami with three children on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, said she couldn’t imagine her life without the scholarship. One of her daughters was born with a rare disease and often was bullied at her public school.

“She would come home crying every night,” Porter said. “I wanted her to feel safe.”

Her daughter is now enrolled at a Catholic school, “where she is treated as an equal.”

Opponents called the bill an attempt to create a parallel state education system and expressed concern about possible discrimination. The Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, said he opposes allowing any public money to be used at religious schools, period.

“No public funds should be used to teach your religion,” he said. “If you continue to give a voucher so that households can go to any school, that any school meet all criteria and make sure no discriminatory beliefs prevent them from attending that school or harming their consciences while they are there.”

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, who voted against the bill, said he didn’t think it was unreasonable to insist on “a baseline discrimination policy” for participating schools. He also said he thinks more emphasis should be placed on allowing families to have access to different public schools.

That’s already the case, Diaz responded.

“The Legislature passed an open enrollment policy that puts that decision squarely in the hands of the district,” he said. “It’s totally local control.”

Diaz also noted the scholarship program is small compared with the number of students educated statewide – 2.8 million.

“We’re trying to provide an opportunity for 28,000 kids,” Diaz said.

He said parents, not the government, are responsible for ensuring their children are in the learning environment that is best for them.

“At the end of the day, what they’re looking for is freedom and opportunity,” he said.

The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee. A similar bill, HB 7067, is scheduled to be heard today by the House Appropriations Committee, its final stop before heading to the House floor.

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for reimaginED. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.