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Florida's universal school vouchers get Gov. Ron DeSantis' signature despite cost concerns

'Parents have had to say to their children, 'I'm sorry we can't make that happen for you this year,' Florida House Speaker Rep. Paul Renner says
Posted at 6:17 PM, Mar 27, 2023

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Universal school vouchers are now law in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the plan Monday morning at a private school in Miami. He called it the largest expansion in the state — and perhaps U.S. history.

While not officially effective until July 1, the bill opens up taxpayer-funded scholarships for private schooling to any K-12 student in the state, regardless of income or ability. Low-income families would still get priority and homeschooled students can get access to the funds for educational supplies.

"That empowers parents," DeSantis said shortly before the bill signing. "That's providing a parent with options to be able to find the best school for the child."

Supporters have said repeatedly their plan allows parents to customize the best education for their children. They note the dollars will follow children — pushing back on criticism that the voucher expansion will draw large amounts of dollars from public schools.

"Parents have had to say to their children, 'I'm sorry we can't make that happen for you this year,'" Florida House Speaker Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, who helped champion the bill this year, said. "With this bill and the governor's signature, we will never have a parent have to say that ever again."

Many Democrats have taken issue with increasing state funds for private schools, which lack the same standards as public facilities. Plus, the plan's overall price tag remains unclear. The House and Senate estimated hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending during bill analysis. Nonprofits have said it'll be billions.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, took issue with the expansion's lack of restrictions for those families that can already afford to pay for private tuition.

"The state of Florida shouldn't be using taxpayer dollars to fund private school education for millionaires' — and even billionaires' — kids … but despite Democrats' best efforts, that's exactly what's happening," Book said in a statement. "Every day people in this state deserve better than free handouts for the excessively wealthy designed to defund public schools while also keeping educators impoverished by robbing district funds."

Florida Education Association is among the critics of the changes. The union, which represents teachers, higher ed faculty and other educational staff, said in a statement the new law could drain "billions" from public schools.

"Once again, we see Gov. DeSantis putting his political ambitions ahead of Floridians, including our students," FEA President Andrew Spar said. "We are deeply concerned that children will pay the ultimate price for the governor"s politics."