Florida school voucher expansion heads to full State House

A proposal that would make all Florida students eligible to receive taxpayer-backed school vouchers is headed to the full House, after getting some changes Friday. 

The Republican-controlled House Education Quality Subcommittee approved the proposal (HB 1) in a near party-line vote. 

The bill would massively expand eligibility for vouchers, including allowing families of homeschooled students to receive the assistance. Also, it would establish what is commonly known as an "education savings account," or an ESA. 

The vouchers could be used on a range of purchases, including such things as instructional materials and fees for various exams. The House panel approved changes Friday that brought the bill closer to alignment with a Senate version (SB 202). For instance, one change would require the State Board of Education to develop recommendations designed to "reduce regulation of public schools." 

Lawmakers could consider the recommendations next year. But critics of the bill questioned the proposal about deregulation. Marie-Claire Lehman, with the group Fund Education Now, said that part of the bill "feels a little bit insincere given the number of bills this session that are going to continue to overregulate our public schools." 

Another change adopted Friday would allow using vehicles other than buses to transport students. Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, said a shortage of bus drivers, in part, prompted the change. "What this will do is, it will allow for — there are some companies that have been vetted through the (state) Department of Education to provide these services," Valdes said. 

Another change, which is not included in the Senate version, would direct the education commissioner to develop an online portal aimed at helping families choose from the "range of school choice options" offered in Florida.