FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

(The Center Square) – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed a bill adopted by lawmakers that will grow the state’s newly created taxpayer-funded school choice program to about 29,000 K-12 students this school year.

Referring to Black Lives Matter protests and calls for reflection on racial disparities, DeSantis said Florida’s school choice expansion “will mean more opportunity.”

“I think if we in the state of Florida can say we are doing everything we can to ensure that every child regardless of family circumstances, income, regardless of race, can have the opportunity to develop their God-given talents – if we can succeed at that – it would be one of the best things that we could do.”

The new law, which goes into effect July 1, also eliminates income levels in eligibility qualifications for the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) program, the state’s largest school choice voucher with 100,512 students enrolled in 1,807 private schools last year.

Instead, families that earn below 185 percent of the federal poverty rate will be given priority for FTC scholarships, paid through corporate tax credits.

In signing House Bill 7067 at Cristo Rey High School, a Salesian Catholic prep school in Tampa, DeSantis dramatically increased eligibility for a taxpayer-funded scholarship program he lobbied lawmakers to create last year.

Lawmakers created the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) in 2019, capping enrollment at 18,000. Students are FES-eligible if household income doesn’t exceed 260 percent of the federal poverty level. FES scholarships were awarded in 70 school districts.

Under HB 7067, spearheaded by House Education Committee chair Jennifer Sullivan, R-Eustis, the maximum number of students participating in FES is raised from a quarter-percent to 1 percent annually of the state’s K-12 population, which is 2.85 million now.

If more than 5 percent of scholarships are available after school years begin, students whose families earn up to 325 percent of the federal poverty level – more than $80,000 for a family of four – will be eligible.

DeSantis sald he called on lawmakers to create the FES because nearly 15,000 students were waiting for FTC scholarships in January 2019.

“What we found was there was a lot of support, a lot of interest in utilizing” FES, he said. “Many are low-income parents, many are single mothers. We weren’t interested in seeing wait lines grow in the future.”

Senate Education Chair Manny Diaz, R-Miami, said, “The demand is there” for FES vouchers “and we don’t want to leave families out.”

Tampa Cristo Rey Salesian High School President Scott Morreale said the school was created in 2016 “to prepare students from underserved communities” for college.

This year marks the 100-student school’s first class of graduates, Morreale said, noting 96 percent of “students who just four years ago didn’t think they had a chance” are going to college. The valedictorian is going to Rice University.

“Many will be first generation” college enrollees, he said. “Our story here at Cristo Rey campus is truly the American dream.”

Morreale said with DeSantis’ school choice initiatives, “we are moving towards a new definition of ‘public education.’ Thirty years ago, public education meant one thing” determined by zip code.

Florida families are “fortunate to receive taxpayers’ funds to attend private, faith-based schools like Cristo Rey,” he said. School choice is “one of the options that need to be on the table for low-income students.”

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said DeSantis has accomplished much since unveiling his “vision for education.”

“Nine, 10 months later, we’re signing bills that have profound influence on people’s lives,” he said, referring to $500 million teacher pay hike DeSantis approved Wednesday “and now, the largest expansion of school choice in the country.”