File Photo | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

A law that goes into effect on July 1 will allow parents of any Florida student to receive a Florida Education Scholarship, commonly known as a voucher, to enroll or reenroll their child in any private or religious school of their choosing or pay for homeschooling — as long as homeschool parents abide by state guidelines and testing.

The scholarship or voucher pays for school-related costs, like books, curriculum and computers. There is also a scholarship for transportation costs to an unzoned public school; $750 a year per child or whatever the cost is per child in their district — whichever is greater.

The amount is based on what’s known as the “Full Time Equivalent” per-pupil funding in each school district. In Polk County, the base FTE amount was $7,976 this past school year.  For special education students with Individual Education Plans, that amount is increased, based on what services they need.

Under state statute, FTE monies already follow students to charter schools, which are privately operated public schools, many run by for-profit companies.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis championed the legislation, which was introduced as H.B. 1, along with Education Commissioner Manny Diaz.

DeSantis, who is running for President, said the bill “represents the largest expansion of education choice in the history of these United States. When you combine private scholarships, charter schools and district choice programs, Florida already has 1.3 million students attending a school of their choosing.”

DeSantis said it is vital that taxpayers be allowed to use the money that would have paid for a public education to follow the child anywhere they want to attend school.

Opponents say bill funnels money to private schools

But opponents say H.B. 1 is a massive money grab, especially for parents who have already chosen to send their children to private schools or to homeschool them.

The Education Law Center, based in Newark, N.J., said the bill’s “potential for harm to local public school districts, which serve the majority of Florida students, is extreme.” The organization estimates it is going to cost Florida taxpayers $4 billion annually, including:

  • $1.1 billion for 124,063 students currently receiving Florida Education Scholarship vouchers.
  • $890 million for an estimated 104,477 new FES vouchers for students who were enrolled in public schools and choose to leave the public system.
  • $1.9 billion for 219,017 new FES vouchers for current private school students newly eligible for vouchers.
  • $85 million for 10,000 new FES vouchers for homeschooled students newly eligible for vouchers.

“H.B. 1 vastly expands the responsibility of Florida’s public schools without providing any funding to do so,” said Dr. Norín Dollard, senior policy analyst and KIDS COUNT director at Florida Policy Institute. “It’s important to grasp the sheer size of this proposed expansion.”

Florida Education Association officials say funding will go to “unaccountable, private and religious schools and corporations” and will subsidize private school tuition.

“The ultimate goal is the complete privatization of Florida’s public schools,” said Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar in a press release. “Florida’s families overwhelmingly count on their neighborhood public schools as the best place for their children to get the education they deserve and need. H.B. 1 will siphon billions away from the schools where nearly 90 percent of Florida’s students learn and grow.”

“This bill will leave children with fewer resources in their already underfunded classrooms and fewer teachers and staff to meet their needs,” he said. “Sending tax dollars to unaccountable, corporate-run private schools is just wrong. This bill is a political priority of a governor who puts his political ambition ahead of Florida’s families.”

The scholarship does not necessarily cover the full cost of a private school education. For instance, the tuition at All Saints Academy is about $15,000 annually.  Lakeland Christian School’s tuition starts at about $10,000 for pre-kindergarten students and goes up to $15,250 for high school students. Parents would have to make up the difference, although many private schools provide scholarships.

FEA President Andrew Spar

“Average Floridians will be helping pay for millionaires and billionaires to send their kids to elite private schools that hand-select their students.”

Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar

Vouchers began in Florida as “Opportunity Scholarships” under Gov. Jeb Bush. Initially, parents of children in public schools that received a failing grade could send their children to a better-performing public school or a private school.  It was then expanded to include special needs students, low income students and students who had been demonstrably bullied.

With the passage of this bill in March, it is now open to all students regardless of income or school history.

Impact to Polk

Polk County Public School officials are trying to determine the impact it is going to have on the school district.

PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid said last year, 5,600 students used the scholarship. The district expects that number to grow to 7,300 this coming school year. That’s a loss of at least $58.2 million and could be as much as $70 million, based on special education students’ needs.

PCPS had 117,727 students last year and expects to have 123,542 this year, including scholarship students. The district has a nearly $1.2 billion budget.

School Board member Lisa Miller, a longtime special needs advocate whose son, Michael, is non-verbal and autistic and uses a scholarship for homeschooling, said special needs students could see up to $21,000 each year follow them out of public schools.

Miller pointed out that special education students have to have an Individual Education Plan to receive services and asked who would be doing those evaluations of homeschool or private school students who have never been in the public school system.

Wendy Dodge, the district’s lobbyist in Tallahassee, said doctors or therapists who have worked with the child could contribute, but it is still the district’s responsibility.

“It is my understanding it will still have to be reviewed by the department (of education), but we do all IEPs,” Dodge said.

Miller said the district has never been able to produce IEPs on time for the students they are currently responsible for serving. The PCPS special education department has been riddled with issues of documentation and providing services for decades.

”We can barely keep up with their own schedule of every 60 days evaluating,” Miller said. “It was very hard. It has never been in our district, the proper documentation.”

Board member Kay Fields commended Dodge, who is leaving the district after taking a job elsewhere, for language in H.B. 1 that allows teachers to bypass the general education requirement for their permanent certification if they have had three years in the classroom and been rated ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’ for three consecutive years.

High-level math on the exam has been a sticking point for some teachers. The bill also expands the length of a temporary teaching certificate from three years to five years.

“I want to especially thank you for listening to the cries of the teachers that were struggling— especially when they’re highly effective. Now they can put that to bed,” Fields said. “I had one of the teachers who called me and was crying, she was so excited. She’s highly effective, yet, she couldn’t pass the general knowledge, whatever the reasons may be. So thank you for being the voice that we really needed at that time.”

Fields then asked if homeschool parents would be accountable for children found to be struggling.

“There are requirements on behalf of families who decide to homeschool their students. There is no accountability,” Heid said. “I want to be very clear, if the student doesn’t grow, or doesn’t make grade level expectations, the parent isn’t penalized in any way.”

Heid said the school district is developing policies and expectations in a contract that will be issued to families that puts some accountability in place.

“Over a specified period of time, we expect the student to demonstrate an acceptable amount of growth, as we would with anyone else,” Heid said. “Because without that, you will have people — it’s a very small percentage — who will take advantage of that voucher and nothing will happen for that child for one, two or possibly up to three years. And then what will happen is, they will come back to the public school system, and then we will get graded and evaluated based off their poor graduation rate, poor performance.”

Parents looking for information can contact Polk County Public Schools. The district is closed on Fridays during the summer. They can also contact Step Up For Students, a longtime clearinghouse for the scholarships.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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