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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Want two words sure to elicit spirited responses from educators, parents and lawmakers alike?

School vouchers.

First joining the Florida educational lexicon in the late 1990s under then Gov. Jeb Bush, some of today’s scholarship and voucher programs mostly differ (in addition to who qualifies) in that they rely on tax-payer money and not corporate donations.

On the latest episode of our To The Point Already podcast, Spectrum Bay News 9's Rick Elmhorst and Roy DeJesus talk with BN9 Tallahassee reporter Troy Kinsey, Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar and parent Katie Swingle about the voucher system, its past, how it may be changing in the future and why it’s so controversial.

All parties involved may want the best for Florida’s school children but ideas vary wildly on how to go about that and if it is happening with the current voucher system.

School vouchers allow for students, often lower income or with special needs, that otherwise likely would not be able to attend a private school, access to funds and scholarships that cover tuition, books, technology and counseling. As many as 100,000 students benefit from the program in Florida.

Republican lawmakers are backing a bill (HB 7045) to narrow voucher programs serving low-income students from five down to two, to streamline the funding. The program would be combined under one umbrella program and eligibilty would be expanded.

Spar said an overriding problem is that there is not enough accountability of where the money is coming from, who is benefiting and how children are being helped.

“(There) used to be a notion that vouchers were there to help kids in poverty get out of failing public schools,” he said, adding that continuing changes to and less accountability of the programs allow for middle class students to get more of the scholarships, leaving out the students the programs were initially intended to help.

Swingle said she doesn’t see that as the case at all.

She said her autistic son failed miserably in public school and a scholarship allowing for him to attend a private school starting in 2014 made a world of difference.

She said her son learned to read and write in one year of private school education and now is flourishing as a 13-year-old at a mainstream school.

“Parents need options,” she said. “I am so lucky to live in a state that gave me this option and has saved my child’s life. To be quite honest, and I’m not being dramatic, they saved his life. There are so many positives to this.”


Spectrum Bay News 9 Anchor Rick Elmhorst sits down with the people that represent you, the people fighting for change and the people with fascinating stories to ask the hard questions.

To The Point Already will cover people, politics and issues from a Tampa Bay perspective every Wednesday.