A new voucher program approved during the 2019 legislative session that dramatically expanded Florida’s school choice program but is being challenged in court has reached its first-year enrollment cap of 18,000 students, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Friday.
The Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, adopted as Senate Bill 7070 in party-line votes, is the state’s fifth school-choice voucher program but the first to use public money to pay for private school tuition and to be directly administered by the state’s Department of Education (DOE).
SB 7070 allocates up to $140 million in state money to offer as many as 18,000 vouchers to students during the 2019-20 school year. That enrollment cap was reached early this month, less than two months into the school year, the DOE reported.
“I’m proud to announce that the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program has attained the highest first-year enrollment for a private choice program,” DeSantis said. “I fought for the creation of the Family Empowerment Scholarship and signed this bill into law because I heard directly from families on the Tax Credit Scholarship waitlist who want to send their kids to schools that are the best fit for them.”
DeSantis spearheaded the legislative campaign to expand the state’s school-choice voucher program. When he assumed office in January, there was a 14,000 student waiting list to enroll in the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) program.
The Family Empowerment Scholarship is among the largest expansions in the state’s school-choice voucher program since it was envisioned in the 1990s and implemented in 2001 as the FTC program.
Under the FTC, corporations and taxpayers voluntarily contribute to non-profit scholarship-funding organizations [SFOs], avoiding direct use of tax monies dedicated to public schools.
Last year, 100,512 students received vouchers to attend 1,807 private schools, making Florida’s school-choice voucher program the nation’s largest, according to Step Up For Students, an SFO.
The Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, however, is the first to use public money to pay for private school tuition and to be administered by the DOE instead of an SFO.
Under the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, students from families with incomes at 185 percent of the federal poverty level – $47,637 annually for a family of four – are eligible.
Eventually, students from families with annual incomes at 300 percent the federal poverty level – $77,250 – also would be eligible for the voucher under the expanded program.
During the session, SB 7070 worked its way through combative committee hearings and marathon floor debates to overcome Democrats’ “third rail” resistance to expanding school choice voucher programs using public money.
Litigation is pending with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Florida Education Association (FEA), the Southern Poverty Law Center and Americans United for Separation of Church and State among groups expected to eventually file individual and collective lawsuits claiming the program violates the state’s constitution.
Florida’s Constitution states no tax money can be spent “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination.” It also requires the state to maintain a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.”
The Florida Supreme Court cited that second provision – a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools” – in striking down a similar voucher plan as unconstitutional in 2006.
Despite the legal challenges, state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and the chairs of the Senate and House education committees joined DeSantis Friday in praising the new school-choice program, noting the fact that all 18,000 vouchers are gone six weeks into the school year indicates there is growing interest among parents in school-choice programs.
“There is simply no denying that choice works. The Family Empowerment Scholarship will help thousands of low-income children realize their potential and will continue to give parents the power to do what is best for their children,” Corcoran said. “We are committed to ensuring every child can go to a great school regardless of their family’s income.”
“Today’s news is great for low income and working-class families,” Senate Education Chairman Sen. Manny Díaz, Jr., R-Hialeah Gardens, said. “For two decades, Florida has been a national leader in educational choice, and we will continue working to ensure every family is given the option that best fits the needs of their child.”