Senate plan would expand school choice
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Senate plan would expand school choice

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TALLAHASSEE — Top Senate Republicans on Thursday unveiled details of a forthcoming package that would bring significant changes to the education system, most notably through an expansion of school choice.

The package would expand private school options for students, bolster security measures in schools, overhaul a program for teacher bonuses and expand community schools. Next week, the package — a priority of Senate leaders — will be filed for consideration during this year’s legislative session, which starts March 5.

The series of proposals are aligned with what Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed, including a pitch for a new voucher-type program funded directly with public money rather than through a system that involves corporate tax credits.

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The Senate and DeSantis would create the voucher program to help reduce a waiting list of roughly 14,000 low-income students in the existing program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. In that program, corporations receive tax credits for contributions to non-profit organizations, which, in turn, pay for children to go to private schools.

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Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said the eligibility requirements between the Senate and the governor’s proposals for the new program are “very similar.”

But details will have to be worked out during the legislative session.

The Senate wants to call the program the Family Empowerment Scholarship, and DeSantis wants to name it the Equal Opportunity Scholarship. The Senate would require that students previously attend traditional public schools to be eligible. DeSantis would not. The governor also wants to raise the income eligibility requirements to allow participation by families making up to 265 percent of the federal poverty level, while the Senate wants it at 260 percent.

“My plan is to provide relief for these kids who are on a waitlist and those parents who want to provide a better education for their child,” Diaz said. “We start with the premise that every child is different … and what works for one child may not work for another.”

While in control of the governor’s mansion and the Legislature for the past two decades, Republicans have consistently supported expanding school choice. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a taxpayer-funded voucher program as unconstitutional. Diaz, however, seemed unfazed by the potential of a court challenge to the new program.

“I wouldn’t be shocking to me because it keeps happening,” said Diaz, who added his focus was on providing students and parents with options.

The Senate education package, however, includes more than just helping low-income students to attend private schools.

The proposal also seeks to address the state’s teacher shortage by removing “barriers” to becoming a teacher, said Senate Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. Stargel said the measure would include steps such as allowing teachers to demonstrate mastery of general knowledge in three years instead of one and reducing certification-exam retake fees.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said another portion of the package would support neighborhood public schools by enhancing wrap-around services like after-school programs, extended school days or school years, counseling and other support services for students.

“What we are doing is making sure that we are making a significant step forward, to provide the additional services for schools in which children are at risk, to make sure they are able to share in the American Dream,” Simmons said.

The package would also make changes to a school-security law passed last year after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Changes to that law would follow recommendations made by a commission that analyzed the mass shooting and suggested ways to prevent gun violence in schools. Among those recommendations is expanding a controversial program to allow trained teachers to be armed.

As it prepares to be filed and considered by lawmakers, the package is already drawing criticism from Senate Democrats, who, shortly after details were revealed, slammed it for putting taxpayer dollars into a voucher program that benefits private schools.

“The latest move is not only an abandonment of the traditional public school system in Florida but an abandonment of the constitutional obligation to fully fund a ‘high quality system of free public schools’ that has been built over generations by the people, for the people,” said Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, added she was opposed to diverting public dollars to “unaccountable and non-transparent voucher schools.”

The package, however, drew praise from Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation of Florida’s Future, an advocacy group founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush that is a leader on school-choice issues. She called Diaz a “hero” for pushing to expand school choice.

One of the things Levesque wants to see approved by the Legislature this year is voucher-type programs for middle-class families, not just low-income families.

Under the Senate proposal, a family of four with an income of up to $65,260 would be able to apply for a taxpayer-funded scholarship to attend a private school.

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