Republican lawmakers in Florida this year will consider giving each K-12 student thousands of dollars a year for their families to spend on education.
Parents can access state-funded accounts and use them to pay for private school tuition and various school-related expenses.
The proposal, if approved, would make the state’s voucher program bigger than ever. But one key fact about the pitch remains elusive: its cost.
It could total billions of dollars.
House Speaker Paul Renner said last week he plans to introduce the proposal, House Bill 1a priority during the annual legislative session that begins March 7.
This measure is already in rapid progress. It will hold its first committee hearing Thursday morning in Tallahassee. So far, there has been no financial impact report of the measure. That’s despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of children are known to be eligible for about $8,000 per child per year.
cost, according to People Analysisis “indeterminate”.
It’s “unreasonable,” said Norín Dollard, a senior research analyst at the Florida Institute for Policy Studies, a nonpartisan group focused on quality-of-life issues for Floridians.The group published a Voucher Funding Report in September.
Dollard noted that approximately 266,000 Florida children attend private schools without using any current state scholarships or vouchers. Under the proposal, everyone would be eligible for an education savings account.
In addition, approximately 150,000 children are home-schooled. HB 1 will provide accounts for up to 10,000 of these accounts in the first year, with many more to follow in subsequent years.
Conservative back-of-the-paper-towel math suggests that if only 25 percent of newly eligible students enroll while current students in the program remain, the incremental cost would be $600 million, Dollard said. With increased participation, the total could be closer to $4 billion or more over five years, she added.
If it’s a policy decision by leadership, so be it, Dollard said. But it needs to be funded somehow.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani discussed the measure with public education advocates in a hastily called Zoom meeting Monday night. “
“We have very, very serious concerns,” Escamani said in an interview. “It’s an annual money transfer. Where does it come from?
when The measure was announced at a press conference, Rainer said it was too early to know how much it might cost. Much depends on how many kids want to take advantage of the vouchers and where the legislature sets the per-student aid for the year, he said.
At the same time, Rainer stressed his goal is to open up school choice further so that “no one is left out.” The bill would remove most eligibility restrictions, but it would prioritize children whose household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level — $55,500 for a family of four.
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It will also expand the use of the money beyond private school fees to include education costs such as tutoring, exams and college courses. It would allow students to deposit up to $24,000 for these purposes and go a step further by allowing children already attending private schools without state support to apply for a share of the funds.
“To effectively deliver quality education, policymakers and education advocates must accept that each student has unique learning needs, that education funding belongs to the student and not the system, and that public school choice provides each student with the opportunity to customize their own education ’” Renner said Tuesday when asked about the associated costs.
Dollard and others said they expected widespread interest in participation, much of it from families who already pay for private schools.Arizona has a similar education savings account program, the state reported. 80% of applicants never attended public school.
This, Dollard suggests, upends the idea that money follows students whose education was never funded by the state in the first place.
District finance officials said they understood leadership’s position that the details were not firm enough to understand the full financial impact.
But, guided by the state’s latest voucher expansion plan, they fear the move will tie up money in district budgets and leave them with little ability to plan.
This is what happened last state Extended Credentials Taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarships for 2021. Officials touted the program as adding $200 million in vouchers to make private school affordable for 61,000 children.
Regions are seeing some money leaving the door, but nothing like 2022. Halfway through the 2021-22 school year, school budget officials across the state learned they had allocated three times as much money to voucher programs as they needed, according to the state’s updated attendance data.
In some counties, including Pasco, efforts to provide workers with raises cheated Funds were diverted to vouchers as officials expected to use them. All told, the cost has grown to $1 billion.
This year offers a similar sticker price shock. The Legislature approved a budget without setting a specific amount for the scholarships.
The price tag has grown to $1.3 billion, based on the second education appropriation in July. For example, this means that the Miami-Dade County School District must allocate $225 million from its budget for the voucher program, while the Hillsborough County School District will allocate $75 million.
When the third count was made this week, the districts learned they had more to lose. Chief Financial Officer Tammy Taylor said the Pasco County District contribution jumped from $29 million to $32.6 million.
“It’s literally lost millions of dollars that we can’t estimate,” Taylor said. “We came up with our forecasts and then we went. … We couldn’t guess what those numbers might be.
If the state removes eligibility restrictions, predicting the financial impact will become more difficult, predicts Pinellas County Schools Chief Financial Officer Kevin Smith. He suggested that the state should at least consider taking money out of the public education funding program and creating a separate program.
That way, schools know what to expect, and they can budget appropriately.
In recent years, the DeSantis administration has taken the position that unexpected changes in enrollment would put financial pressure on local school districts.
Jacob Oliva, Florida’s outgoing K-12 principal, testified in federal court earlier this month that the influx of immigrant students in Florida has weighed on districts’ spending plans due to higher enrollments. Here comes the “tremendous pressure”.
The testimony is a key argument Florida is making in court as it seeks to show that the Biden administration’s immigration policies are hurting Floridians in part because conditions at the border are costing the state more money.
Ultimately, it should be the onus on those advocating expanded vouchers to explain to taxpayers how they plan to pay, said Dollard.
“They expand the school system’s obligations without providing resources,” she said. “If there is no source of income, it has to come from existing (funding streams).”
A spokeswoman for Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said her Senate was reviewing the House bill, including potential costs. Passidomo expressed support for the measure.
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