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Florida could be expanding its school voucher program. Here's what's at stake

 The school voucher program could be expanded by HB-1.
The school voucher program could be expanded by HB-1.

A bill that would expand the state’s voucher school program is swiftly making its way through the legislature. As WMFE’s Danielle Prieur reports, the program provides scholarships to families who want to send their kids to private or charter schools instead of public ones.

It’s around 3 pm on a Friday and Bobby Breske is giving me a tour of his school, Morning Star Catholic, which caters to students with special needs.

Breske is 21 and has Down Syndrome. He takes classes in the nearby high school building.

Breske is able to attend the school because of the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities. It pays tuition for students with disabilities to attend their school of choice.

His mom, Joy Breske, is a devout Catholic and says she wanted her son to attend a religious school. She also said he received a more rigorous education there than she feels he otherwise would have.

“At that time, he was a lot younger, the public schools were overwhelmed and inundated," said Breske. "They couldn't even really properly take care of or educate special needs. It was more of a daycare babysitting situation.”

Right now, only kids from households with incomes at or below $110,000 dollars for a family of four are eligible.

HB-1, the School Choice bill, would expand Florida’s voucher program, to allow all students to apply, including private and homeschooled kids.

Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani opposes the bill. She said she doesn’t support taking kids and money away from public schools.

“And it’s shocking that we're willing to spend that much money to essentially defund public education, but we're not willing to spend money to pay our teachers better," said Eskamani. "We're not willing to spend money to address the mental counseling needs within our schools.”

The Florida Policy Institute estimates in the first year alone, the expansion could cost Florida $4 billion dollars.

Over the years, one of the criticisms of public dollars following kids to private schools has been concerns over whether private schools can turn kids away.

Stetson University education professor Lou Sabina said they can.

“So charter schools and private schools can say that they don't have the resources for a particular program," said Sabina. "So let's say there's let's, say there's a student who has a high needs disability. And the charter school doesn't have the faculty to provide for that. They can turn them away and send them back to the public school.”

Across the country, three states have passed universal voucher programs, including Arizona.

Beth Lewis is director of an organization called Save Our Schools Arizona. She said the voucher school expansion is hurting local public schools.

“They sold the program, under the guise that the money would just follow the child. But that's, you know, obviously not what's happening," said Lewis. "It's this whole huge new expense for the state. And it's really just people who have already chosen private school or homeschool that are asking for, you know, a government subsidy for that.”

Arizona Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs has said she wants to undo the state’s voucher program, and has vetoed the state budget that would continue to fund the program.

Still Brevard Republican Rep. Randy Fine, who supports the bill, said every child who wants to attend a private or charter school should be able to, not just the ones whose parents can afford it.

“Why should you have to be wealthy to get a good education? You shouldn't," said Fine. "And so if the private school is the best school in your area, or the best school for your child? Um, why shouldn’t you be able to get them educated there?”

Governor Ron DeSantis has already signaled that he will sign the legislation if it makes it to his desk.

Copyright 2023 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

Danielle Prieur