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Universal school voucher bill advances despite some concerns from Gov. Ron DeSantis

'If you have a family that's very high income — they already have school choice,' DeSantis says
Posted at 7:38 PM, Mar 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-08 19:38:54-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Universal school voucher bill made steady progress Wednesday, clearing two more committees, but the governor has some reservations.

The GOP plan seeks to open up scholarships for private schooling to any Florida student, regardless of income or ability. Even those homeschooled can get funding.

But following his Tuesday state of the state address, Gov. Ron DeSantis had some concerns with current versions of the bill, which could benefit many who can already afford private schooling.

"If you have a family that's very high income, they already have school choice," DeSantis said. "They don't necessarily need to be eligible for the program."

The governor said the concern wasn't necessarily a "deal breaker." However, Republican supporters are likely to take note. Having the governor on their side might be better than risking a veto.

"I am totally comfortable saying that if everyone in Florida who can afford it can go on their own without getting it — and everyone who can't gets a scholarship — to me that is still universal," DeSantis said.

Research of a similar program in Arizona showed around 80% using it had already been paying private tuition. Sponsor Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, hand't heard the governor's concerns — but noted the bill is still a work in progress.

In fact, Senate Republicans pushed it through an appropriations subcommittee Wednesday despite laking a cost estimate. Some nonprofits think it could reach $4 billion, while the House estimation is much less at about $210 million.

"We are still prioritizing those students that are 185% of the poverty level. Those students will get priority," Simon said. "At the end of the day, we want to fund those students that are in our school system. We have a responsibility to do so. We'll continue to work on it."

Even so, the bill is a nonstarter for many Democrats. They remain concerned the plan prioritizes private facilities where state standards don't apply and that the expansion will draw too much funding from public schools.

"As long as the public schools are still in the predicament to where they feel that they're getting the short end of the stick— which in this instance they are — then, no, I will not be able to support that," Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, said.

The bill next heads to the House floor for discussion and debate. The Senate's version still needs to clear one more committee. Simon expects he will finally have a cost estimate to discuss by then.