When newly-elected Gov. Ron DeSantis named three justices to the state Supreme Court in January, he empaneled a 6-1 conservative bloc that inspired Republicans in the state Legislature to file “trial balloon” abortion, preemption, de-regulation and education legislation.
Some argued GOP lawmakers wanted to purposely induce lawsuits by adopting bills that ignore or contradict rulings issued by the courts and, particularly, the Supreme Court years ago, convinced the Supreme Court now sitting in Tallahassee would overturn or amend those unpopular rulings by a different court in a different time.
With less than four days remaining before the 60-day session adjourns Friday, most of those initiatives appear to be flaming out, but one certain to succeed in being challenged in court as soon as it is signed into law is the Family Empowerment Scholarship the House sent to DeSantis’ desk Tuesday.
The House Tuesday voted 76-39 to adopt Senate Bill 7070, a wide-ranging omnibus education package that includes the proposed Family Empowerment Scholarship program.
SB 7070 authorizes up to $130 million a year – including public monies – to pay for private school tuition. Up to 18,000 students, from families with income of up to $77,250, would be eligible this fall to receive the voucher to attend a private school.
That $130 million fund will be largely financed through the Florida Tax Credit [FTC] program although it will be supplemented by state general fund allocations – a “third rail” issue Democrats refused to concede on, albeit futilely in the GOP-controlled chamber.
Throughout the committee process and on the House floor Monday – which featured a four-hour failed amendment blitz by SB 7070 opponents – and Tuesday, Democrats said the bill is unconstitutional in accordance with a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling.
In a 5-2 ruling, justices ruled in 2006 that Gov. Jeb Bush’s 1998 voucher plan violated the state constitution by giving children in the state’s lowest-rated public schools taxpayer money to attend private or parochial schools.
Then-Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in the Bush v. Holmes majority ruling that the voucher “diverts public dollars into separate, private systems, parallel to and in competition with the free public schools. This diversion not only reduces money available to the free schools, but also funds private schools that are not ‘uniform’ when compared with each other or the public system.”
Pariente is among the three liberal justices who retired from the Supreme Court in January, allowing DeSantis to replace them with three conservatives.
Democrats and other opponents said they will challenge the new voucher program under the 2006 ruling.
Supporters say, “bring it on.”
"I don't think it's unconstitutional. That will ultimately be for the Supreme Court to decide," said Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Eustis, House Education Committee chair. “We're making history today. It’s not about public vs. private. It’s about our students. We’re giving parents real choice in this bill."
Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Beverly Hills, said the new voucher program offers a “free market” approach to education that gives parents choice and ensures tax dollars are spent wisely.
“Our free markets have allowed us to advance our technology,” Massullo said. “The reason we have such educated people, the reason we have so many amazing devices, is because of that free market where people aren’t restricted. Competition breeds excellence. It’s almost a fact of nature.”
Former public school teacher Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said without proper oversight, which he said the bill does not provide, the competition between public and private schools isn’t a “truly free market.”
"A free market is only free when both sides are able to play,” he said. “We’re not against parents having a right to choose. We’re just asking for an even playing field.”
Rep. Joe Geller, D-Dania Beach, said it is unconscionable to divert tax dollars from stressed public schools to pay for children to attend private, often religious, schools.
“If there are problems with our schools, let’s fix them. But we can’t abandon public schools,” Geller said. “There’s a very clear precedent that says this law is unconstitutional.”
"The proponents of this legislation won't be satisfied until our entire education system has been privatized," said Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee. "These [vouchers] are slowly killing our traditional public schools."
SB 7070’s adoption drew a Tuesday statement of support by Americans for Prosperity-Florida Director Skylar Zander.
“Florida lawmakers have made K-12 education a priority by putting the tools and resources kids need to fulfill their potential in their hands,” he said. “We hope Gov. DeSantis signs this bill and that lawmakers continue to find ways to give teachers the means to innovate in the classroom and give students the tools they need to succeed.”
DeSantis was not in the gallery Tuesday when the House adopted the new voucher program, but former Gov. Bush was.
“It was 20 years ago when one visionary leader started Florida and Florida’s children on a patch of choice,” House Speaker Jose Oliva praised Bush after SB 7070 passed. “It was 20 years ago – and here we stand today.”