Cost, Constitutionality Of ‘Family Empowerment Scholarship’ In Question

The cost and constitutionality of the“Family Empowerment Scholarship” is a hotly contested topic in Tallahassee and across the state.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to create the new voucher program to address a massive backlog of students waiting for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The scholarship would be paid out of public dollars in the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP).

Critics of the program argue that using state funds to help families pay for private schools is unconstitutional.

Senate Democrat Leader Gary Farmer said in a statement that putting state funds “directly into the pockets of unaccountable private institutions directly contradicts the precedent established by the Florida Supreme Court in Bush v. Holmes.”

Opponents like Farmer point to the Florida Constitution, which states “adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools,” to strengthen their claim.

Stephanie Karst of Indivisible Gainesville wrote an opinion piece expressing concerns that the new program wouldn’t meet the requirements outlined in the Florida Constitution.

She writes that it would be “impossible to assess the uniformity of education” because “private schools do not require the same educational credentials or certifications for teachers” and “do not require the same state-mandated tests as their public school counterparts.”

Another issue is the price. According to the Florida Phoenix, the “voucher program would cost an estimated $110.8 million if 15,000 students take advantage of it to attend private and religious schools.”

At a caucus meeting April 3, Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson expressed concern over tax dollars coming out of the longstanding Florida Education Finance Program formula.

“That fundamental shift is we’re moving away from a Constitutionally approved method of funding tax credit scholarships to using FEFP dollars and general revenue for private institutions,” Rouson said.

The House bill’s funding calculation would result in reductions to scholarship amounts for students in grades 4-12. According to redefinED, it could be a $1,000 reduction for high school students, an $800 reduction for middle-schoolers and a $500 reduction for 4th- and 5th-graders.

“If I had to tell my kids that they could not attend their school anymore because of lack of scholarship money, there would be many tears and heartache in our household,” Ashley Baum, a mother of two, told lawmakers at a hearing on March 27.

But on the other side of the coin, advocates say this would wipe the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship waitlist and give families more education opportunities and choices.

Margie Viera, a single mother of two, wrote an opinion piece in Florida Politics explaining how “access to a scholarship would be a lifesaver” for her family.

“Last year, I applied for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, but we weren’t eligible because my income is just enough to disqualify our family,” she said. “The Florida House’s plan would include families like mine and other single moms who are doing their best to help their sons with little or no assistance.”

A poll conducted by Florida Atlantic University showed that 52 percent of registered Florida voters support Gov. DeSantis’ school choice expansion.