- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2023

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Monday a sweeping universal school-choice bill, the latest red state to enact legislation allowing state education dollars to follow the child in what he described as the largest expansion of education choice in U.S. history.

House Bill 1 lifts income eligibility restrictions on the state’s scholarship program, which will permit more students to use their per-pupil funding to attend public, charter, homeschooling, or private schools, including private religious schools.

Mr. DeSantis called the bill, which takes effect July 1, a “game-changer” and a “big deal.”

“It expands school choice to every single student in the state of Florida,” said Mr. DeSantis. “It does that by eliminating the current financial eligibility restrictions and allowing any student who’s a resident of Florida and eligible to enroll in K-12 to participate in school-choice scholarships.”

The bill-signing ceremony at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, a private Catholic school, comes amid a red-state stampede to have state per-pupil funding follow the student instead of going directly to the local public school district.

Republican governors in Utah, Iowa and Arkansas have already signed such bills this year after Arizona made history in July as the first state with universal school choice with its education savings accounts.

The Arizona program is in serious political jeopardy under Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, a foe of universal school choice who was elected in November to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, but another half-dozen states are mounting their own legislative drives.

That includes West Virginia, where the Legislature is seeking to move up the timeline on its 2021 Hope Scholarship program to include all students this year, ahead of the prior 2026 target.

The Florida measure sets up a two-tier system in which families with incomes below 185% of the federal poverty level, or about $51,000 for a family of four, are given first priority. Those earning between 185% and 400% of the poverty level, or up to about $110,000 for a family of four, would have second priority.

“There will be a preference for low- and middle-income families,” Mr. DeSantis said, “but at the end of the day we fundamentally believe the money should follow the student, and it should be directed based on what the parent thinks is the most appropriate education program for their child.”

The legislation also eliminates the enrollment cap on the Family Empowerment Scholarship, known to critics as vouchers, and increases the number of scholarships available to students with disabilities. A requirement for students to earn at least one graduation credit via online learning was eliminated.

Decrying the school-choice measure were Democrats and the Florida Education Association, which blasted the bill as an “$8,000 taxpayer-funded coupon for millionaires and billionaires.”

“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,” Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book said in a statement.

Tiffani Lemon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the result would be a “massive defunding of Florida’s public schools, allowing billions in taxpayer dollars to be diverted from public schools to unregulated private religious schools.”

“This will devastate the future of public education in Florida and the detrimental consequences will be far-reaching, especially for communities of color, and low-income families that depend on the public school system,” Ms. Lemon said.

Florida wasn’t the first state to pass universal school choice, but Mr. DeSantis said his state was “number one in education freedom and education choice.”

“When you combine private scholarships, charter schools, and district choice programs, Florida already has 1.3 million students attending a school of their choosing,” he said. “These programs have been instrumental in elevating student achievement over the past twenty years.”

The bill also removes barriers to teaching by eliminating the general education requirement for highly rated teachers, and extends the term of a temporary teaching license from three to five years.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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