Florida school voucher expansion passes, headed to DeSantis for signature

A massive expansion of Florida’s school-choice programs that would make all students eligible for taxpayer-backed vouchers is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis, after the Republican-controlled Senate passed the measure Thursday amid warnings from Democrats.

In a 26-12 vote along straight party lines, senators gave final approval to the measure (HB 1), which the House passed last week.

DeSantis already has pledged to sign the proposal, which includes removing income-eligibility requirements that are part of current voucher programs. It has been a top priority of House Speaker Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican who was in the Senate chamber Thursday.

"We are funding students in this state. Parents have spoken," Senate sponsor Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, said.

Under the bill, students would be eligible to receive vouchers if they are "a resident of this state" and "eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12" in a public school.

The measure includes a tiered "priority" system for students to receive vouchers. Students whose household incomes are less than 185% of the federal poverty level, or roughly $51,000 for a family of four, would get first priority. Next would be students whose family incomes are from 185 percent of the poverty level to 400% of the poverty level, which is about $111,000 for a family of four.

Outnumbered Senate Democrats slammed the measure during a floor debate, characterizing it as a potential handout for wealthy people who would seek the vouchers.

"Let’s just face it, if you are a parent and you are paying for private school, why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of this program? I mean, this is going to be corporate welfare for parents who are already paying for private schools," Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boca Raton, said.

"Millionaires, billionaires — we have no limits in this bill at all. Anybody would be entitled to get the up to $8,000 that we’re talking about," Berman added, referring to the amount of per-student funding that would be provided through vouchers.

Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, argued that expanding voucher access would chip away at funding for traditional public schools.

"The parents of these students will just get a rebate for the private-school tuition that they are already paying for. And that means the funds we have to pay for public schools will be reduced by the number of students accepting the voucher," Davis said.