So many questions about school voucher bill

The following editorial was published in The Daily Sun on March 21, 2023.

Any day now, the Florida Senate will side with their colleagues in the House and approve a voucher bill that will give money for any student in the state to attend a private school.

Republican legislators want to expand the state’s voucher program beyond just helping students with disabilities or from low-income families. They plan to allow any of the state’s students to take advantage of the program. HB 1 and SB 202 which would give any parent the choice obtain a voucher to send their children to a private school or use the money for homeschooling.

The argument is that education should not be a one-size -fits-all approach and that public schools may improve because of this bill.

Our biggest concern was addressed before the House approved the bill Friday. That is that wealthy families who do not need vouchers would benefit the same as very low and moderate income families who normally could not afford private school.

But the House altered qualifications for vouchers with students whose household incomes are less than 185% of the federal poverty level, or roughly $51,000 for a family of four, getting first priority. Next in line would be students whose family incomes are from 185% of the poverty level to 400% of the poverty level, or about $111,000 for a family of four.

We don’t see an ability for public schools to improve much considering the money that will be swept into private schools that would have been earmarked for public schools. Of course public schools won’t have near the enrollment to deal with — and that could be another problem. What if the exodus to private schools leaves schools build for 1,000 or more students with 600 to 700 students?

But the real concern we have is will the education provided by private schools have the oversight that public schools have always had to satisfy?

Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, a leading critic of the legislation, said private schools don’t follow the same standards as public schools and don’t have to meet the same safety requirements as charter and public schools.

There is also an issue of money. Estimates of how much this program will cost vary wildly.

Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, says $646 million is a good number for the voucher expansion. Critics say a more realistic number would be more than $1 billion-$2 billion.

And, finally, there is a big question if private schools can handle the expected enrollment explosion and that the number of private schools in Florida will multiply quickly, putting pressure on the state to award approvals to schools and for-profit companies that may be less than stellar An early estimate is that 20,000 homeschooled students will receive vouchers next school year and that number will continue to grow and possibly double in two to three years.

Bottom line is that while the reasoning behind this bill may be sincere and on target, we fear the haste to ram it through the Legislature has left some unanswered questions that could cause major headaches when the legislation goes into effect.

Senators have the final word. Let’s hope they consider guaranteeing standards for current and expected private schools while not ignoring the needs for a successful public school system.


Image Credits: Teachers and students head to the Punta Gorda Middle School main office on the first day of school in Charlotte County. SUN FILE PHOTO