Florida Senate OKs bill to create new school voucher program

Florida is on the verge of creating a new school voucher program that's a priority for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis after the Senate passed a bill Thursday expanding existing programs that allow students to go to private schools at taxpayer expense.

The bill would create the "Family Empowerment Scholarship" and make it available to lower-income families. The first year of the program would allow up to 18,000 students to switch from public to private schools at state expense. It would cost $130 million.

It was hailed by Republicans who say it gives parents more options to educate their children. Senate Education Committee Chairman Manny Diaz said the bill will remove obstacles for parents trying to make sure their children get the best education possible.

"Every parent knows what's best for their individual child, and at no point should we turn over that responsibility to the government," said Diaz, a Republican.

The bill passed on a 23-17 vote with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a former Leon County school superintendent, said Florida built one of the most accountable school systems in the country under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, and the bill would strip public schools of money and send students to schools that aren't held to the same standards.

"What are we doing?" Montford said. "We're allowing them to take public funds to go to schools where the standards are not as high, or maybe don't have any standards. And worse than that, we don't even know what those standards are. Why are we supporting allowing parents to take their children to schools that don't fit the accountability system that we all are so proud of? Why are we doing that?"

Republicans disputed that the program would hurt public schools, saying the bill also gives school districts money to recruit and retain teachers, as well as money targeted to help struggling schools provide tutorial programs and extended school days, among other things.

"Public schools are not going to go away simply because someone chooses another setting for their child," Diaz said. "This bill provides incredible flexibility for our public schools."

Florida already has other voucher programs, including a tax break for businesses that provide private school scholarships for poor students. Other programs provide vouchers for special-needs students, disabled students and students who are bullied.

A similar education bill is awaiting a House vote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.