‘Transformational’ Florida education choice bill wins approval in first legislative hearing

(reimaginED) – A bill that would extend eligibility for flexible spending accounts to all K-12 students cleared its first hurdle today on the way to becoming the largest expansion of education…

(reimaginED) – A bill that would extend eligibility for flexible spending accounts to all K-12 students cleared its first hurdle today on the way to becoming the largest expansion of education choice in Florida’s history.

Members of the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee voted 13-4 to move HB 1 forward to its next committee stop. Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indian Harbour Beach, was out with an excused absence. The vote was mainly along party lines, with Rep. Lisa Dunkley, D-Lauderhill, joining the Republicans in voting yes on the bill.

Rep. Susan Valdes, D- Tampa, who got two of her proposed amendments approved, voted no on the bill but signaled to committee members that she plans to keep an open mind as the legislative process continues.

“I feel we still have time to collaborate,” said Valdes, who has supported previous education choice bills.  “If we talk about students, I think we can all agree that we want the best for all of our babies in the state of Florida. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation.”

The bill’s primary sponsor, who also serves as chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, described it as “transformational” and said subcommittee members’ support would allow Florida to maintain its top spot among the states as the leader in education choice.

“For decades, Florida has been a national leader in providing high-quality options for our students and our parents,” she said in introducing the bill. “I hope you’ll join me in making history today. Today, we will keep parents in the driver’s seat, and today we will fund students, not systems.”

If approved in its current form, HB 1 would remove income limits from all the state’s two major income-based programs, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Education Options. Families whose income is at or below 185% of federal poverty line, about $55,500 for a family of four, would still receive priority.

The bill also would convert traditional scholarships, in which money goes directly to a private school for tuition and fees, to education savings accounts. Also known as ESAs, these funds allow parents to direct funds toward other approved uses such as private tutoring, instructional material, including digital and internet resources, curriculum, a virtual program or online course that meets state requirements, and tuition and fees associated with homeschooling.

(The number of homeschooled students using the formerly income-based programs will be capped and increased each year until 2027.)

The bill would let families bank up to $24,000 in the ESA of each child receiving the educational options scholarship to put toward approved uses. Choice navigators would be available to help parents determine the best options for their child.

The expanded programs would be administered by state-approved scholarship funding organizations. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, is one of two nonprofit organizations that manages these programs.

Current law limits eligibility to lower- and middle-income families and students who meet certain criteria such as children of active-duty military members, law enforcement officers and children who are in out-of-home or foster care.

In addition to converting the two traditional scholarship programs to ESAs, the bill would also eliminate this current waitlist for the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities, which Tuck said currently stands at about 9,500.

Lawmakers approved two amendments to the bill. The first requires the state Department of Education to notify each school district about the number of full-time equivalent students in the Family Empowerment Scholarship program.

The second requires each applicant to be notified that participation in the scholarship program does not guarantee enrollment in a particular school or program.

The room was packed with audience members seeking to speak about the bill, requiring lawmakers to extend the meeting by 20 minutes to accommodate everyone.

Members of national education choice advocacy groups, including Americans For Prosperity, the American Federation for Children, and yes. every kid spoke in support of the bill, which a day earlier won the endorsement of the Florida Council of 100, a private, nonprofit group of the state’s top business leaders.

A representative from the Foundation for Florida’s Future, the nonprofit founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, who also endorsed the bill, attended the meeting and waived in support of the bill.

“Florida has long been the leader for providing myriad education options,” said Tiffany Barfield, government affairs director for yes. every kid. She said Iowa recently approved an education choice bill, and Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders named it a top priority at her swearing-in speech.

“It’s time for Florida to take the lead yet again,” she said.

However, the most moving testimony came from those who have personally benefited from Florida’s education choice programs.

“I have five children and three of them are on scholarship programs,” said Alkesha Williamson of Tallahassee. “Our family has lived in three different states and the public-school systems in all of them were not built for my children.”

All three children learned at home during the height of the pandemic, but Williamson applied for the scholarships soon after learning about them.

Her two sons receive Family Empowerment Scholarships to attend private schools “that work well for them,” while a Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities allows her to customize her daughter’s education.

“If all the scholarships had this flexibility, we would consider going back to homeschooling,” she said. “I would love for our family to be in that environment learning all together.”

One lawmaker spoke about how education choice had improved their children’s lives.

State Rep. Susan Plasencia, R-Winter Park, said she applied for scholarships for her three children after district school officials decided to put her middle child into special education.

“I didn’t like this path for my son,” said Plasencia, a co-sponsor of the bill. “I knew he could achieve so much more, so I pulled all of my children out of school, all three of them. I was able to put my three children into a great private school, one that I was otherwise not able to afford. So this was game changer for my family.”

Plasencia said that her children grew up to be successful. Her daughter wanted a traditional high school experience and returned to public school, where she graduated and went on to attend the University of Central Florida. One of her sons got his high school equivalency and trained to become a diesel mechanic who “wakes up every day loving what he does for a living.”

Her middle child, the one destined for special education had he stayed at his district school, graduated at the top of his private school class and went on to study computer engineering.

“The reason I tell you my story today is because every child learns differently, and every parent understands the needs of their children.”

The bill’s next stop will be the House Pre-K-12 Appropriations Subcommittee before heading to the House Education & Employment Committee.  HB 1 has no companion bill in the Senate, but Senate President Kathleen Passidomo has expressed her support for the House bill.