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Florida Set To Consolidate, Expand School Choice Programs

Florida's school choice programs are set to allow more students in and families will likely receive more money under plans approved by the legislature. There will also be fewer programs to choose from, a move supporters say streamlines the process and makes it easier for families to navigate.

The Senate accepted and approved the House version of the plan which folds the Gardiner and McKay Scholarship programs for students with disabilities into the Family Empowerment Scholarship for middle-income families. Gardiner and McKay families would still receive their scholarship promised House bill sponsor, Rep. Randy Fine.

“If you are a Gardiner scholarship recipient…you’d get exactly what you’re getting right now with one exception. Many students in the Gardiner scholarship program will get thousands of dollars more next year than they have in the past," Fine said in response to a question about Gardiner and McKay posed by Orlando Rep. Anna Eskamani.

The House plan differed significantly from the Senate, which would have merged Gardner and McKay together, but left the programs intact. Sen. Manny Diaz has called the consolidation his top priority, and in the end, adopted the House version of the proposal.

"Everything has changed with COVID," Diaz said in an interview with WFSU in March. "And parents are more intent on being involved and having flexibility with their student’s education. And what this does is it really brings that to fruition and gives them the opportunity to handle that.”

The bill preserves the state's other three choice programs: the Hope Scholarship for bullied students, the Family Empowerment Scholarship and the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship. The plan also taps money set aside for transportation and teacher raises to increase scholarship funds. This is a problem for Democrats who argue private schools don’t have to provide either.

"Let’s be intellectually honest here. If we’re going to use public money in this way, lets make sure there’s accountability and transparency," said Rep. Ben Diamond.

“The principal behind the bill is that the funds follow the student," Fine said in response to criticism. "And if the parent of that student…decides that a government run or charter school is not the right option…that they get the full amount of funding that we have allocated to educate that child.”

Both House and Senate plans decrease the number of programs while opening them up to more students and also increase funding levels.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.