Florida House speaker wants to expand school voucher program

Jan 19, 2023, 12:39 AM | Updated: 2:45 pm
FILE - Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, opens a Special Session, on Dec. 12, 2022, ...

FILE - Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, opens a Special Session, on Dec. 12, 2022, at the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. Renner announced Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, that one of his priorities during the legislative session that begins in March will be to expand a school voucher program for special needs students. (AP Photo/Phil Sears, File)

(AP Photo/Phil Sears, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida would make every student eligible for vouchers to attend private school with taxpayer money under proposed legislation House Speaker Paul Renner said Thursday will be a priority for the session that begins in March.

The bill could greatly expand the state’s current voucher programs, but would give priority to low-income and special needs students ahead of wealthier families seeking help with private school tuition.

“We already have more school choice children, more people that are using choice options in this state than any other state in the country,” Renner said during a news conference. “We’re simply making sure no one’s left out.”

He said he’s not concerned that the legislation could create a mass exodus from public schools.

“Many people will stay right where they are because they’re happy, but this is really about making sure that there is increased competition,” Renner said.

Critics said the legislation will hurt public schools by sending money to private schools that aren’t held to the same accountability standards. House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell called the bill “alarming.”

“Our Republican-led Legislature continues to attack our public schools — our teachers — making it very difficult for Florida to compete with the rest of the nation,” Driskell said during a news conference. “This sets our state back.”

Several states have been more aggressively seeking to expand school choice laws in the past two years, including Iowa, where Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds made vouchers for all a priority in her Condition of the State address last week.

Florida began its voucher program more than two decades ago under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and has passed several laws to expand it over the next three Republican administrations, including two years ago when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill raising income levels to receive vouchers.

If passed, Renner said it would eliminate a waiting list for vouchers for special needs children, though he didn’t know how large the waiting list is and the legislation doesn’t have a price tag.

The legislation was designated House Bill 1, which indicates its importance to the speaker. The Legislature will begin its annual 60-day session March 7.

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Florida House speaker wants to expand school voucher program