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More Florida Public School State Aid Headed To Private Schools. Advocates Call For More Transparency

Photo of pencils with headline: Florida's Hidden School Voucher Expansion
Photo: Joanna Kosinska via Unsplash | Columbia County Observer graphic

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL — The flow of state school aid vouchers for private schools reached an estimated $1.3 billion since the Florida Legislature enacted the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) program in 2019. These findings are reported in a new research report by Education Law Center (ELC) and Florida Policy Institute (FPI).

The report, "Florida's Hidden Voucher Expansion: Over $1 Billion From Public Schools to Fund Private Education," finds funding redirected from Florida’s public school districts to vouchers in 2022-23 represents 10% of total state aid for public education.

The diversion of public school district funds to vouchers is in addition to a potential $1.1 billion in public dollars diverted from the state treasury through vouchers financed by corporate tax credits.

The report finds:

• Between 2019-20 and 2022-23, funding redirected to private education from the Florida Education Financing Program (FEFP), the state’s school funding formula, increased by $1 billion.

• The increase in diverted funds outpaced increases in public school funding.Link to Florida Hidden School Voucher Report

• Up from 3% in 2019-20, 2022-23 will see an estimated 10% of the $13.2 billion in state aid for Florida public schools will be diverted to private education through the voucher program.

• The entire cost of private school vouchers is diverted from school districts’ state aid.

Gadsden County is losing 9% of its total Florida Education Financing Program (FEFP) budget to vouchers. Miami-Dade will lose $225 million to private education via Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES)  vouchers.

Voucher expansion has happened quickly. It has opened the door for public funds to flow to private education with very little accountability. There are few protections for students’ civil rights or against discrimination. The sudden loss of a significant portion of school district budgets will impact underfunded school districts, impacting their ability to respond to the needs of their students.

On Tuesday, education advocates voiced their concerns during a press conference sponsored by FPI and ELC

Mary McKillipMary McKillip, ELC Senior Researcher and report author:

“By rerouting substantial dollars from public schools to support private education, the educational environment of students throughout the state is being severely eroded. Florida is turning its back on public school students at a time when more resources, not less, are needed."

Norin DollardNorin Dollard, Ph.D., Senior Policy Analyst, and KIDS COUNT Director at FPI:

“It’s concerning that an enormous amount of tax dollars are being railroaded to private schools with virtually no transparency or accountability.”

ELC and FPI short-term recommendations:

In the short-term, recommend that Florida lawmakers take the following steps to help districts and students:

• Require the Florida Department of Education to increase transparency in the movement of funds, including greater visibility and up-to-date figures;

• Halt voucher eligibility expansions and enact a periodic income recertification process;

• Implement firm restrictions on the amount of funds a district may be required to redirect annually to private education to allow districts to manage their budgets better; and

• Consider state funding in the form of transitional aid to support public school districts seeing a significant increase in voucher costs.

Education leaders and public interest groups have recognized the transfer of public funds to private schools and its consequence.

Rocky Hanna, Superintendent of Leon County Public Schools, said: "Florida ranks 42nd in the country in K-12 per pupil funding. It is an absolute travesty that the Florida legislature and governor have made it a priority to expand the private school voucher program in the State and commit over $1.3 billion public tax dollars to support private schools with private interests with zero accountability.” [abridged]

Teresa Potter, President and Education Action Chair, Hillsborough County League of Women Voters:  “With the increase in the income eligibility cap to $100,000, private school vouchers are now shifting local taxpayer dollars from our local schools that have families at poverty level. Students who need the most help often don’t have access to private schools. The school district is now left without the funds to provide these students the additional support." [abridged]

Bacardi Jackson, Interim Deputy Legal Director, Children's Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center, and SPLC Action Fund: "When public funds are unjustly reallocated to private schools under voucher schemes, including those using misleading labels like scholarships and tax credits, already underfunded public schools and the children who rely on them suffer. Public schools are the only schools that serve all children irrespective of their religion, race, orientation, identity, or language. They are bound by federal laws to protect the rights of children with disabilities. More than $1 billion public education dollars are siphoned annually to privatizers that are allowed to use public money to discriminate against children and families and to deepen the segregation of our schools." [abridged]

Education Law Center, founded in 1973, pursues education justice and equity to ensure that all students receive a high quality public education preparing them to participate as citizens in a democratic society.

Florida Policy Institute (FPI) is an independent, nonpartisan-nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing state policies and budgets that improve the economic mobility and quality of life for all Floridians.

Information for this article from FPI, EDL, and the worldwideweb.

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