TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NEWS SERVICE FLORIDA) - Saying he wants to “empower parents,” Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday touted a major education bill that includes creating a controversial school-vouchers program.
DeSantis, flanked by key lawmakers, appeared Thursday morning at Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville and at Mount Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy in St. Petersburg and was scheduled in the afternoon to go to William A. Kirlew Junior Academy in Miami Gardens, where he planned to hold a bill-signing ceremony.
Lawmakers last week gave final approval to the bill (SB 7070), which includes creating the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program to provide vouchers to as many as 18,000 students next year to attend private schools.
DeSantis pointed during the Jacksonville appearance to what he called a “historic legislative session” on education issues, including creation of the vouchers program and other efforts to bolster school choice, such as moving to eliminate a waiting list in the long-established Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
“Let’s empower parents. Let’s allow them to make the decisions, and I think that is going to mean more achievements in the future for all of our students,” DeSantis said.
Critics of the bill, however, have warned that the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program likely will face a legal challenge. The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 ruled that a similar program, spearheaded by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, was unconstitutional. That ruling, in a case known as Bush v. Holmes, said sending tax dollars to private schools violated part of the Florida Constitution requiring a “uniform system of free public schools.”
The Florida Education Association teachers’ union contends the Legislature is harming neighborhood public schools and plans to host a “summit” May 18 in Orlando to discuss issues such as vouchers.
“Along with the majority of people in Florida, we believe that public education is a fundamental good for this state and for the nation as a whole,” Fedrick Ingram, the union’s president, said in a statement Wednesday announcing the summit. “But our neighborhood public schools are under attack --- there’s no other way to describe it. If public education is going to have a future in Florida, it’s time for the people who care about our public schools to step forward and take control of the conversation.”
But DeSantis and the lawmakers who appeared Thursday at the schools in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg said voucher-type programs provide needed opportunities to families who otherwise would not be able to afford private education.
“For the parents in the room, we believe in you,” House bill sponsor Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said during the event in Jacksonville. “We believe that you know what’s best for your students, and we want to give you all the tools and all the opportunities you can have.”
Robert Ward, the pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church who opened the St. Petersburg school, said 40 of its 56 students receive Florida Tax Credit scholarships.
Under that program, which served about 108,000 students during the 2017-2018 school year, businesses receive tax credits for contributions they make to non-profit organizations. The organizations then use the contributions to provide voucher-like scholarships for largely low-income students to go to private schools.
But DeSantis said the Florida Tax Credit program has about reached its capacity, which contributed to the need to create the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.
Ward called the legislation a “new day for school choice in Florida.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.