When the Florida Legislature convenes in the first week of March, one of the changes that will be up for consideration is an overhaul to the way the state pays for private education.
Named HB 1, the first bill filed for the legislative session, is about offering parents more choice in their children’s education, its proponents say.
As it is written now, it modifies Florida law about how people can pay for the private education of their children, which would include the state funding individual education savings accounts that can be used for homeschooling and tutoring.
It also takes a step toward bolstering charter schools, its opponents say, something the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis did near the end of the 2022 session with the passage of laws that weaken local school boards’ abilities to deny charters within their districts.
Some local school board members voiced their concern about those changes then, and about HB 1.
“The school choice train has already left the station. I am not talking about that,” said Tom Edwards, who serves on the Sarasota County School Board.
“The crusade to destroy public education via choice — to allow an option using a savings account — is the icing on the cake. It’s the final nail in the coffin. And hopefully the legislature will realize this extreme education policy is not way to quality schools,” Edwards said.
Other area board members are taking a wait-and-see approach to the bill.
“As a supporter of public education, I believe it is important to provide students and their families options to best meet their individual needs,” said Charlotte County School Board chair Cara Reynolds in an email to The Daily Sun.
“In terms of how local districts can prepare for these potential changes, we must be willing to consider how vouchers and education savings accounts could be integrated into our current system that will be beneficial for our families and students. Our primary focus is always on providing a high-quality education for all students, regardless of the type of schools they attend.
“Currently, this bill is under consideration and is not passed legislation, and as such, it is important to understand all sides of this bill and to consider the potential benefits and potential consequences. I will closely monitor the progress of this legislation and the potential impact it could have on the families and students in our community.”
Bob Segur, a longtime member of the Charlotte County School Board, was also planning to monitor the bill as it moves through the legislature.
“It is important to be patient as to pending legislation. There could be a number of changes, additions, or deletions before we will see a final version.
“As such it is important for all stakeholders to monitor the progress of the bills as they move through the House and Senate. Stakeholders include parents, students, community leaders, teachers, administrators as well as school board members. All should be contacting their local legislators as how each believes the pending changes might impact their children and the community as well.
“It has been inherently clear to me that every child is unique and as such there should be as much flexibility as possible afforded to provide a quality education for every child. The challenge is making certain that no harm is visited on other students by affording those choices.
“Each district will need to monitor the final version of the legislation so as to determine how a student can benefit from the new opportunities. The key as always will be to make certain that Districts encourage each family to gather as much information as possible so as to utilize the proposed options effectively for their child.”
Kim Amontree, Charlotte County School Board member, noted how most people in Charlotte County choose public schools for their children.
“I have not read the details of the bill or analyzed it yet. I do support school choice and giving all families the opportunity to choose the best education for their child. In Charlotte County the vast majority of families choose our public schools (over 95%),” Amontree wrote in an email to The Daily Sun.
“When this choice is funded by taxpayer money, there needs to be accountability measures for all recipients.
“I also support increased transparency among the many education providers so that families can make an informed choice.
“Without having read the bill, I cannot know all the impacts on our district. My greatest concern is that the increases for the Florida Empowerment Scholarship program need to be included in the 2023-24 fiscal year budget and that the amount budgeted must be clearly linked with the FTE (full time enrollment) associated with the projection.
“Currently scholarships are funded through the FEFP (Florida Education Finance Program) and when the projected number of scholarship students is not accurate, it leads to a lack of predictability for school district budgets,” Amontree wrote.
The bill is about to begin its journey through committees, with a discussion scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday before the Choice & Innovation Subcommittee.
Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, is chair of that committee. She is also the sponsor of the bill. She told the News Service of Florida the bill is a “customized and tailored education system that fits best for their students.”
But House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, criticized the bill, telling the News Service it is a “continuation of Republican attacks on our public education system that helped create the American Dream by providing education to the poor and rich alike.”