TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed legislation to allow all K-12 students in the state to get taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, continuing a focus on education as he prepares to launch an expected Republican presidential campaign.
The law expands Florida's voucher system by eliminating income eligibility limits on the program. Democrats and critics have said the legislation has an unclear price tag, amounts to a subsidy for the wealthy and could harm public schools.
The so-called school choice movement first gained traction in the U.S. in the 1990s but has seen a renewed push after coronavirus pandemic school closures and ongoing cultural debates over education around gender and race.
DeSantis has made eliminating what he describes as liberal ideology in education a focal point of his conservative agenda, harnessing unease among some Republicans regarding what they view as inappropriate subjects being taught in schools.
“There will be a preference for low and middle income families but at the end of the day we fundamentally believe that 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,” DeSantis said at a bill signing ceremony at a Catholic school in Miami.
The bill was a priority of Republican House Speaker Paul Renner and it was expedited through the GOP-dominated state Legislature. On Monday, Renner said the new law will allow parents to send children to alternative schools where their values and faith are respected, referencing “some of the craziness that happens in our K-12 schools.”
Florida began its voucher program to help parents pay for private schools more than two decades ago under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and has passed several laws to expand it over the next three Republican administrations. DeSantis two years ago signed a bill raising income levels to receive vouchers to 375% of the federal poverty level. DeSantis on Monday said 1.3 million children in Florida attend a school chosen by parents.
About a dozen other states have or are considering so-called school choice bills this year. A handful of states make vouchers available to all students, regardless of family income levels.
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association teachers union, said the law will divert public money to private schools.
It "will drain billions of taxpayer dollars away from the neighborhood public schools that nearly 90 percent of Florida’s parents trust to educate their children," he said in a statement. “Additionally, this new law will hand over that public money to unaccountable, corporate-run private schools.”
Democrats have repeatedly raised questions about the program's potential cost.
A House analysis of the bill estimated it could cost more than $209 million, but a Senate analysis put the potential figure at more than $646 million. The independent Florida Policy Institute calculated that the program may cost $4 billion.
House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell on Monday said “cost and accountability are grave concerns.”
“I am personally concerned, and I think many in our caucus share this sentiment, that this could be devastating to Florida’s public schools," she said.
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