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New report estimates vouchers will divert $1.3 billion in public money to private schools this year


The amount of public money being spent on private schools in Florida has increased substantially since 2019, according to a new report by the Florida Policy Institute and the Education Law Center.

The analysis estimates that some $1.3 billion in taxpayer funds will be diverted school vouchers this year, amounting to 10% of the overall funding the state earmarked for public school districts for the 2022-2023 school year.

“This enormous increase in the flow of public dollars to fund private education has happened so quickly that many Floridians are likely unaware of the financial impact being placed upon public school districts and the way these voucher programs are affecting the availability of their tax dollars for public education,” the report reads in part.

Private schools don’t have to comply with federal civil rights laws or state laws on standardized testing, teacher certification or certain building codes in the way that public schools do.

Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who spoke at a press conference about the report’s findings, said expanding vouchers is taking away resources away from traditional public schools.

“Enough is enough,” Hanna said. “What’s happening is, we are diverting funds from students with special needs, from students who otherwise are going to lose programs that are vitally important to their academic success later in life.”

The report - titled 'Florida's Hidden Voucher Expansion' - traces the growth in the state’s voucher programs to 2019, when the state legislature created the Family Empowerment Scholarship or FES.

State lawmakers expanded the program in 2021, loosening the qualifications for applying and rolling two other voucher programs into the FES – the McKay Scholarship and Gardiner Scholarship, which set aside funding for students with disabilities.

Now, families who make nearly $100,000 a year are able to qualify for the FES. Students are no longer required to have attended public schools to apply for a voucher; now, students who were homeschooled can also qualify. Families also have greater flexibility in how the funds can be spent, including on transportation, private tutoring, online learning and other costs.

The impact of the vouchers on school districts varies depending on how much they rely on state versus local money. Funding for the FES comes from the Florida Education Finance Program or FEFP – which allocates money on a per student basis and is a key source of revenue for local school districts.

The report estimates that in the Miami-Dade school district, $225 million will be diverted to private schools in the 2022-2023 school year, amounting to “8% of the district’s total FEFP budget”.

Bacardi Jackson is the Interim Deputy Legal Director for Children’s Rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She argues that diverting public funds into private schools is part of a long legacy of undermining students’ equal access to education – especially Black students.

“Imagine what the return of $1.5 billion each year to our public schools could do. I for one can imagine a better future for my three children and all of our children,” Jackson said. “I can imagine a recommitment to the one institution that sits at the cornerstone of our democracy: a free, high quality, public education that is guaranteed by the constitution of the state of Florida.”

Critics have long argued that vouchers can make racial segregation worse – by giving more families a way out of the public system, pointing to the rise of public subsidies for private schools in the wake of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

Proponents of vouchers argue they give kids from low income backgrounds a better chance at leaving struggling schools.

The expansion in the vouchers comes as many traditional public schools are struggling to keep their enrollment numbers up, as more families seek out private, charter or homeschool options – in part due to the learning disruptions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.