Florida Legislature Approves ‘Family Empowerment Scholarship’

The “Family Empowerment Scholarship,” a topic of heated debated the last few weeks, has been approved by the Florida legislature.

The bill, which had the support of all Republicans and six Democrats, has been sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk after passing on a 76-39 vote.

The new voucher program aims to eliminate the backlog of 13,000 students who were waiting for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

“For those on the waiting list, we have been listening to you,” said Education Committee Chair Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora. “This is not about public versus private schools, this is about our students, their future and what is best for them – not protecting an institution. We’re giving parents real choice in this bill… Data sheets don’t show you a (school’s) culture, atmosphere, relationships and intentionality. Parents can see those things.”

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.”

The Family Empowerment 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.

“I’m not the first person to point out that proponents of this will not be satisfied until the entire public school system is privatized,” said Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee. “These are slowly killing our traditional public schools.”

Rep. Joe Geller, D-Dania Beach, also believes the new program is unconstitutional and cited the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 Bush v. Holmes ruling that invalidated the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

“I’ve practiced law for a long time in this state,” Geller said. “I believe in the legal system and believe that judges do their duty. There’s a very clear precedent that says this law is unconstitutional. The notion that the very clear Florida Supreme Court precedent is going to be disregarded just because new justices are on the court, honestly, is an insult to all these new justices, as if they don’t care what law or precedent dictates.

“If you want to send kids to private schools go right ahead, feel free, but the problem with these voucher programs is all of the other tens of hundreds of thousands of children who for whatever reason will never have this opportunity. The great leveling factor for advancing people of humble of origins is our system of free public schools.”

Supporters of the bill maintain this is about school choice for low income and working class families.

“Today is a historic day for low income and working class Florida families who want the power to choose the best learning environment for their children,” said Step Up For Students Chairman John Kirtley, whose organization administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram argues that choice doesn’t equate to “world-class education” that lawmakers have preached.

“We have no way of knowing what kind of education students get at private schools. These schools are not subject to state accountability standards — they don’t have to hire certified teachers or even teach facts,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Florida Phoenix.

According to the Daily Commercial, the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is expected to challenge the program in court.