Florida Republicans promise school vouchers for everyone, but don’t reveal the financing plan

Republican lawmakers in Florida will consider offering thousands of dollars to all elementary school students this year for their families to spend on education.

Parents would have access to state-funded accounts and use them to pay for private school tuition, as well as a wide variety of school-related expenses.

The proposal, if approved, would make the state’s school voucher program bigger than ever. But there is one key fact about the program that remains unknown: its cost.

It could amount to billions of dollars.

House Speaker Paul Renner said last week that he plans to make the proposal, the Bill 1a priority during the annual legislative session, which begins on March 7.

The measure is already being dealt with on the fast track. It will have its first commission hearing Thursday morning in Tallahassee. So far, the measure does not include any financial impact statement. That’s despite the knowledge that hundreds of thousands more children would be eligible for annual payments of around $8,000 each.

The cost, according to staff analysis, is “undetermined.”

And that’s “not reasonable,” said Norín Dollard, a research analyst at the Florida Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on quality-of-life issues for Floridians. The group published a report on the financing of the cupones in september.

Hundreds of thousands of new students would be eligible

About 266,000 Florida kids attend private schools without using any state scholarships or vouchers, Dollard says. Under the proposal, everyone would be eligible to have education savings accounts.

In addition, some 150,000 children are homeschooled. HB 1 would provide accounts for 10,000 the first year, and more in subsequent years.

A conservative estimate suggests that if only 25% of new students participate and those already in the program stay, the added cost would be as much as $600 million, according to Dollard. As participation grows, the total could approach $4 billion or more in five years, he added.

If that’s the political decision of the leadership, so be it, Dollard said. But you have to finance it somehow.

A recurring financial obligation

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, focused on that issue during a Zoom meeting. summoned rushed in Monday night to discuss the measure with public education activists.

“We have very serious concerns,” Eskamani said in an interview. “This is an annual redirection of money. Where will it come from?”

Introducing the measure at a news conference, Renner said it was too soon to tell how much money might be needed. A lot depends on how many kids want to take advantage of the coupons, he said, and how the Legislature sets the annual per-pupil funding.

At the same time, Renner stressed that his goal is to open more school options so that “no one is left out.” The bill would remove most eligibility restrictions, though it would give priority to children whose family income is at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, or $55,500 for a family of four.

It would also expand the uses of the money beyond private school tuition to include educational expenses like tutoring, exams and college courses. It would allow students to accumulate up to $24,000 for those uses, plus allow children who already attend private schools without state support to apply for a portion of the funds.

“To effectively deliver quality education, education policymakers and activists must accept that each student has unique learning needs, that education funding belongs to the student and not to a system, and that the choice of the public school offers each student the opportunity to personalize their own education,” Renner said Tuesday, when asked about the associated costs.

Participation expected to increase

Dollard and others said they anticipate broad interest in participation, much of it coming from families already paying for private schools. In Arizona, which has a similar education savings account program, the state reported that 80% of applicants had never attended public schools.

Dollard suggested that this flips the idea of ​​money following the student on its head, since the education of those students was never covered by state money in the first place.

School district financial officials said they understood the leadership’s position that the details are not firm enough to know the full financial impact.

But taking the state’s most recent voucher expansion plan as a guide, they worried that this initiative would take money out of district budgets and leave them little planning capacity.

That’s what happened the last time the state expanded vouchers in 2021 with the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship. Officials promoted the program as adding $200 million to vouchers, allowing 61,000 more children to afford private school.

Districts saw some money go, but nothing compared to what happened in 2022. Halfway through the 2021-22 school year, school budget makers across the state learned that it would take triple the money they had set aside to send to voucher programs, based on current state assistance figures.

In some counties, like Pasco, efforts to provide raises for employees were derailed as money officials hoped to use was diverted into vouchers. In total, the cost amounted to $1 billion.

The current year has been similar. The Legislature approved a budget without a specific amount for the scholarships.

In the second estimate of education funding in July, the price had risen to $1.3 billion. That meant the Miami-Dade school district would have to send $225 million of its budget to the voucher program, for example, and the Hillsborough County school district would send $75 million.

When the third estimate came out this week, the districts learned they would lose even more.

If the state does lift eligibility restrictions, Pinellas County Schools chief financial officer Kevin Smith warned, it will be even more difficult to predict the financial impact. He suggested that the state should at least consider taking the money out of the public education funding program and creating a separate line item.

That way, schools would know what to expect and would budget accordingly.

In recent years, the DeSantis administration has taken the position that unexpected changes in enrollment can put financial pressure on local school districts.

Jacob Oliva, Florida’s outgoing basic education provost, testified in federal court earlier this month that the arrival of migrant students to Florida puts “significant pressure” on district spending plans due to enrollment increases. .

The testimony was a key argument Florida made in court as it tried to show that the Biden administration’s immigration policies are hurting Floridians, in part because the situation at the border is costing the state more money.

At the end of the day, Dollard said, it should be up to the people promoting the idea of ​​the voucher expansion to explain to taxpayers how they plan to pay for it.

“They are expanding the obligations of the school system without contributing resources,” he said. “If there’s no source of revenue, you have to get out of the funding that’s already there.”

A spokesman for Senate Speaker Kathleen Passidomo said her chamber is reviewing the House bill, including potential costs. Passidomo has expressed her support for the measure.

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