TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida House passed legislation Wednesday to expand Florida's school voucher enrollment by 60,000 students, even as critics derided the proposal as a zealous diversion of public funds to unaccountable private schools.

What You Need To Know

  • Expansion of school vouchers moves forward to Florida Senate

  • Four Democrats joined with GOP majority in House's vote

  • Bills would combine lower-income programs under one umbrella

  • Critics say private schools don't have same accountability as public schools

  • PODCAST: Vouchers vs. Scholarships: Debate over expanding school choice

Four Democrats joined a united Republican caucus in approving the measure, underscoring the sometimes complicated political dynamics of school vouchers. Many underperforming public schools are located in districts with large working-class populations, creating a groundswell of local support for expansion of vouchers benefiting students from low-income families.

Under the legislation, the two voucher programs serving low-income students would be combined under one umbrella program, and eligibility would be expanded.

"It's not about low income anymore," Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) said during Wednesday's floor debate. "You can make up to $100,000. We are now creating that option, for more people to make the right decision for them so schools can be accountable to parents."

The issue of accountability, however, has emerged as a key point of debate. Public-school advocates are bemoaning what they call a double standard, as the bill funnels more taxpayer dollars to private institutions that aren't subject to the same student testing and school grading standards as their public-school counterparts.

"The lack of accountability has created dozens, if not hundreds, of new schools that only exist because of these voucher programs, and how will we ever know if voucher programs really work?" asked Rep. Kamia Brown (D-Orlando).

The measure would also combine three other voucher programs catering to students with disabilities and eliminate a waiting list.

The expansion proposal would cost as much as $200 million. The state's largest voucher scheme, the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship program, is funded through corporate donations, with donor companies receiving dollar-for-dollar reductions of their state corporate income tax bills. A string of court rulings have emboldened the legislature's Republican leaders to divert funding directly from general revenue to pay for vouchers.

The legislation is expected to be considered by the Republican-controlled Senate soon.