FILE - Florida Sen. Manny Diaz

Florida Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah Gardens

(The Center Square) – The Senate Monday sent a bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk that would streamline Florida’s school choice programs in order to expand eligibility for private school tuition vouchers to families earning nearly four times the federal poverty level.

Despite opposition by out-numbered Democrats, the Senate approved House Bill 7045 in a 24-15 partisan vote securing its final passage. The House moved HB 7045, sponsored by Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, to the Senate in a 79-36 tally on April 21.

HB 7045 and its Senate companion, Senate Bill 48, sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, would merge five voucher plans that now pay for nearly 190,000 Florida K-12 students to attend more than 1,800 private schools into two state trust funds.

Florida offers five school choice voucher programs: the John McKay Scholarship; Gardiner Scholarship Program; Hope Scholarship Program; Family Empowerment Scholarship Program (FES); and Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC).

HB 7045 repeals the Gardiner and McKay programs and transitions students into the FES.

The FES, created in 2019, awarded 36,384 vouchers in 2020 to students averaging $6,972.53 each to attend private schools. The FTC, the largest of the voucher programs, provided $670 million in vouchers to 111,219 students enrolled in 1,870 private schools.

HB 7045 increases voucher amounts from 95% to 100% for students in the FTC, FES and Hope programs and streamlines the system to expand it.

“We do not want Florida families, who are already paying taxes that fund our K-12 education system, to have to choose between furthering their professional careers and qualifying for school choice scholarships,” Diaz said.

Touting a provision that raises eligibility to 375% of the federal poverty level – making a family of four earning nearly $100,000 eligible for enrollment – Diaz said, “This legislation increases household income eligibility for our scholarship programs to ensure more Florida families have access to these options.”

Democrats repeated the same arguments they’ve lodged for a decade against Florida’s school choice programs – the nation’s largest – only with increased urgency as, they maintain, each voucher program expansion further degrades traditional public schools still attended by more than 2.5 million K-12 students.

“Bit by bit, cut by cut, these vouchers or scholarships or whatever you want to call them are slowly killing our public schools,” Sen. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, said, warning “unintended consequences” will eventually unfold.

Whether that alleged decline is good or bad for Florida students is up to Florida parents, said Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who chairs the GOP state committee.

“Every parent should have the right and the choice to send their children to whatever school they see fit,” Gruters said.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lady, called the school choice vs. public schools a false argument contrived by vested interests in sustaining the status quo in education that many parents believe is clearly inadequate.

“I don’t understand why we still insist this dichotomy between choice and public education,” he said. “These are not at war with each other.”

The bill goes into law July 1 if DeSantis signs it, although the only real question is just how big of an event the governor will order for its signing ceremony

“We want school choice to be an option for every family,” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said in a statement. “This important legislation further streamlines our existing school choice scholarships, and expands eligibility for lower income families, families of students with unique abilities, adopted children, and children whose parents serve in our military.”