Senate education choice expansion bill wins first committee approval

Karen Prewitt of Jacksonville testified that the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities has allowed she and her husband, David, to customize their son Caleb’s education.

The Senate version of a bill that would expand eligibility for flexible spending accounts to all K-12 students cleared its first hurdle today on the way to becoming the largest expansion of education choice in Florida’s history.

Members of the Senate Committee on Education for Pre-K through 12 voted 9-3 along party lines, with Republicans in support, to move SB 202 forward to its next stop, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Education.

“If we pass this, this will the boldest education legislation Florida has ever undertaken,” state Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville said during the debate part of the packed meeting, which had to be extended by 15 minutes to accommodate all the members of public who signed up to speak on the bill.

Karen Prewitt, a Jacksonville mom whose son, Caleb, has Down syndrome, was among those speaking in support of the bill.

She said the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities has given her family the flexibility to customize Caleb’s education. In addition to his tuition, she is able to use funds for equine therapy and life-skills training. Caleb, who is heavily involved in Special Olympics and competes in youth triathlons across the state, also has his own cooking show on Facebook.

“We are grateful to have that kind of flexibility in spending our education dollars to customize Caleb’s education to meet his needs, and I know many other families in Florida would benefit from having that freedom,” Prewitt said.

Angela Rivera, whose son, James, has autism, said he has benefited greatly from his Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities. The program has allowed the family access to intervention therapies that they otherwise could not afford.

“Every family should be able to choose where their child is educated, based on their individual needs and abilities,” Rivera said. “And every family should have the spending flexibility of an ESA that gives them more options and opportunities. Just as this scholarship has changed the future for my son, expanding these scholarships can change the future of Florida’s children.”

Like its House companion, HB 1, SB 202 allows for parental involvement and customized K-12 education in Florida through the expansion of education savings account eligibility to all students. (The House Pre-K through 12 Appropriations Subcommittee is set to consider HB 1 at 9 a.m. Thursday. The Florida Channel will livestream the meeting.)

However, in addition to expanding scholarship eligibility and adding flexibility, the Senate version incorporates recommendations from the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and calls for reducing “onerous and excessive regulations” on public schools.

“This is not just a private school bill,” said Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, the committee chairman and sponsor of SB 202. “This is for all schools. We’re not pulling dollars away from public schools. There are parents that are looking for another choice, but by and large, the majority will choose the public school option. This is to promote competition throughout all of our education opportunities and at the same time decrease some of the other regulations that are put on our public schools.”

Former state Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who now serves as chief executive officer for the statewide superintendents’ organization, showed up to thank lawmakers for seeking to relax some of the restrictions on public schools. He said the superintendents his organization represents welcome competition, as long as it’s fair.

“This bill levels the playing field,” he said.

Education Savings Account for Every K-12 Student Florida currently offers scholarship programs for eligible students (typically students from lower income families) to attend private schools that a parent determines will better serve their needs. These programs include the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) for students attending private school.

Scholarships are funded at an amount commensurate with the per-student amount appropriated for students attending a public school. Florida also offers a Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with unique abilities, which provides educational savings accounts that allow parents to direct funding for their child either to a private school, or other educational services and materials.

Scholarships for students with unique abilities are funded at a higher per-student amount, determined in part by the type of developmental disability and the cost of services the child may need.

Eligibility for all school choice programs is currently limited by state law in the form of an income or enrollment cap. SB 202 expands eligibility for Florida’s school choice scholarships to all students who are residents of Florida and eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12 in a public school. Under the bill, parents will receive an education savings account to take dollars the State of Florida has appropriated for their child in the public education system and choose among a variety of options to customize their child’s education.

The bill makes several immediate revisions to Florida’s Education Code, identified by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. For example, the bill reduces hurdles to a 5-year temporary teacher certification for anyone with a bachelor’s degree and for those with two years of effective or highly effective service.

The bill provides flexibility to school districts in setting salary schedules. The bill repeals the requirement that a student have one online credit in order to graduate from high school, which is not currently required in private schools. The bill also offers districts flexibility in facility costs for new construction, and offers student transportation flexibility to improve efficiency, while maintaining student safety. (Current law limits districts to using school buses for transportation.)

During Tuesday’s meeting, Simon explained that the new law would grant school districts flexibility to use large vans in addition to school buses to transport students to and from school.

The bill also includes a provision that would require the state Board of Education to review the entire chapter of Florida education statutes and recommend to the governor and Legislature revisions “to reduce regulations on public schools.”

The bill does not specify what regulations would change but instructs the state board to consider input from superintendents, teachers, administrators, school boards public and private post-secondary schools, home educators and others to be delivered in a report by Nov. 1.

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. 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.