Florida Senate expected to vote on school voucher expansion bill

In two major issues of the 2023 legislative session, the Florida Senate is poised to give final approval Thursday to bills that would dramatically expand school vouchers and help shield businesses and insurance companies from lawsuits.

The House passed both bills last week, and the Senate on Wednesday positioned them for final votes. The bills would then go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign them.

The vouchers bill (HB 1) would make all Florida students eligible for vouchers by allowing anyone who "is a resident of this state and is eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12 in a public school" to receive the assistance. The proposal also would set up what are known as "education savings accounts," which would allow recipients to spend voucher funds on a range of purchases beyond private-school tuition.

It remains unclear how many families would receive vouchers, but Senate bill sponsor Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, suggested the measure wouldn’t cause a mass exodus from public schools. Current voucher programs include income-eligibility requirements.

"What our hopes are, is that every child will receive this scholarship. But I want to highlight … 85 percent of our students will stay in our public-school system. That’s just how the numbers work out," Simon said.

In another significant change, the measure would allow 20,000 home-schooled students to receive vouchers in the first year, with that number growing by 40,000 in each subsequent year. Families could spend the money on a range of purchases such as instructional materials, fees for certain exams and tutoring services.

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During a discussion Wednesday on the Senate floor, Democrats peppered Simon with questions about the bill, including about different standards for public schools and private schools.

"Will (participating) private school teachers be required to have teacher certifications?" Sen. Rosalind Osgood, D-Fort Lauderdale, asked.

"No, they don’t have to be certified, but they do have to have three years of professional teaching experience or a bachelor's degree," Simon replied.

Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, pressed Simon about how lawmakers "are being good stewards of public money if there’s no oversight, accountability at the private schools"

Simon said "we’re not funding the school, we’re funding the student."

The Senate also put forward a new, $2.2 billion estimate for how much the voucher expansion could cost the state — far exceeding previous Senate and House staff estimates of $646 million and $209.6 million, respectively.

House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, has led the push for a broad expansion of vouchers and to take steps to help prevent costly lawsuits against businesses and insurers.

The lawsuits bill (HB 837) includes largely eliminating what are known as "one-way" attorney fees in lawsuits against insurers. One-way attorney fees have long required insurers to pay the attorney fees of plaintiffs who are successful in lawsuits.

Among other things, the bill would reduce from four to two years a statute of limitations for filing negligence lawsuits; make it harder to pursue "bad faith" lawsuits against insurers; and revamp laws about comparative negligence, which involves situations when juries find more than one party at fault.

Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, proposed several changes to the bill Wednesday, including a proposal that dealt with liability of property owners when people get hurt or killed on their premises.

Part of the issue focuses on situations where people are injured or killed because of criminal acts on commercial property or at places such as apartment complexes. The bill would direct juries to "consider the fault of all persons who contributed to the injury" — including criminals who caused the injuries or deaths.

Grall and other critics said that part of the bill would relieve property owners from responsibility for creating dangerous conditions because juries would assign blame to criminals.

Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said negligent property owners should not be able to use criminals to shield them from liability.

"Crime victims should not be collateral damage in this fight," Bradley said.

But Senate bill sponsor Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, said 12 other states have such laws and that he thinks juries will make the right decisions.

Senators voted 23-16 to reject Grall’s proposed changes, which included seeking to remove the crime-related part of the bill.