By John Kennedy
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation Thursday that pours state taxpayer money directly into private schools for a new Family Empowerment Scholarship, which critics say violates the state constitution.
On a three-city tour of private schools, DeSantis touted the new program, which is expected to cost $136 million and be used by 18,000 lower-to-middle-income students in the coming year.
"Your success shouldn't be limited by family income, what zip code you live in," DeSantis said at Potter's House Christian Academy in Jacksonville. "It should be based on you working hard and getting the most out of your God-given talents.
"This scholarship gives you the opportunity to do that."
The law faces an almost certain court challenge, likely backed by the state's largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association.
The state Supreme Court 13 years ago invalidated then-Gov. Jeb Bush's first-in-the-nation statewide voucher program by ruling that taxpayer dollars going to students attending private or parochial schools violated the constitution's requirement that a "uniform" school system exist in Florida.
But the last three justices on the seven-member Supreme Court to rule against that voucher program have retired and DeSantis in January appointed three new, conservative members who may take a different view of the constitution's limit on funding private schools.
Bush joined state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a former Republican House speaker, on the House floor last month when the voucher legislation was approved and sent to DeSantis in a mostly party-line vote.
Democrats derided the latest voucher program as favoring private and for-profit education over the state's public schools, a trend which many said began under Bush. Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, said vouchers "are slowly killing our traditional public schools."
The new Family Empowerment Scholarships grew out of a 13,000-student waiting list which developed for another voucher program, the Tax Credit Scholarship program, which has been around since 2001 but has sidestepped constitutional problems. Its dollars come from corporations receiving credit for steering tax money to a scholarship-funding organization.
While the tax credit scholarships are used by about 100,000 lower-income, mostly black and Hispanic students, the Family Empowerment Scholarships targets a new market.
Under the legislation, a family of four earning as much as $77,250 annually could qualify for the scholarships, which equals 300 percent of the federal poverty level, although lower-income families would still get a preference.
While pulling $136 million directly from the state's public school funding, supporters say that's a drop in the bucket compared to the $22.2 billion system which finances 2.8 million public school children. Still, it's an alarming move, opponents argue.
The legislation includes other provisions, which appeared intended to soften Democratic opposition to the voucher program.
A revamped Best and Brightest school teacher bonus plan, a teacher mentorship program and improved access to student and family support services at low-performing schools are included in the new law.
(c)2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.