FILE - Florida Sen. Manny Diaz

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

(The Center Square) – Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature will significantly expand the state’s school choice voucher program before the 2021 legislative session concludes April 30.

That’s certain. What remains uncertain is how, exactly, they will do it with three weeks left before the proverbial hanky drop to sort through two slightly differing proposals now set to be debated on the House and Senate floors.

The House Appropriations Committee Thursday approved House Bill 7045 in a 20-5 vote, sending it to the House floor for a chamber vote, likely adoption and transmittal to the Senate, which has its own proposal awaiting review on the floor.

Senate Bill 48, sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, has been idling in the Senate since it secured its third chamber committee endorsement on March 4.

There are modest differences between the 158-page SB 48 and the 61-page HB 7045, which wasn’t introduced by sponsor Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, until March 24, nearly three weeks after the Senate bill had passed through committee hearings and arrived on the chamber floor.

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).

According to SB 48’s and HB 7045’s legislative analyses, during the 2019-20 school year, $221.5 million in McKay scholarship funding was awarded to 30,185 students to attend 1,547 private schools. As of October 2020, 17,508 students were awarded Gardiner scholarships averaging $10,464 per student. Hope scholarships were awarded to 390 scholarships for students to attend a private school and 476 to students to attend another public school.

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

SB 48 would merge five voucher plans that pay for nearly 190,000 K-12 students to attend more than 1,800 private schools into two state trust funds while creating education savings accounts (ESAs) averaging $7,400 per student for participating families.

Fine’s HB 7045 includes many of SB 48’s provisions but instead of folding five vouchers into two, HB 7045 keeps FTC and Hope programs separate and coordinated by nonprofit organizations such as Step Up For Children.

HB 7045 would “dramatically increase” eligibility by consolidating the Gardiner and McKay programs, which serve students with special needs, into the FES, Fine said.

The bill increases voucher amounts from 95 to 100 percent for students in the FTC, FES and Hope programs and streamlines the system to expand it, Fine said.

“We’ve created a complexity for parents that’s simply unnecessary,” he said. “This reduces the complexity without taking away any choice.”

Down Syndrome Foundation of Florida’s Camille Gardiner, wife of former Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the bill will engender “many unintended consequences” for special needs students and encouraged the committee to reject HB 7045.

“This will be the beginning of chipping away at something this Legislature set up to support our fellow citizens that have children with the most significant disabilities,” Gardiner said.

“No child who is on the McKay or Gardiner scholarships will get one dollar less if this bill passes,” Fine said. “The vast majority of them will get thousands more.”

Fine submitted three approved amendments:

  • expand FES eligibility to military dependents and siblings of students enrolled in the program;
  • broaden FES eligibility for students in families that earn up to 300 percent of the poverty level, $79,500 for a family of four;
  • allow FES funds to be put toward internet expenses and purchasing a digital device as part of an ESA.