JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — School choice vouchers in Florida would see an unprecedented expansion under a bill that cleared its first house committee Thursday morning.
One of the big changes would be allowing homeschool students to receive state funds.
The option is currently only available on a very limited basis.
For parents like Barbra Beasley, who homeschools her special-needs daughter Emily, access to rebates for extra circular activities and tutors have been a game changer.
“I have a daughter that has a career path that’s open to her. One that fulfills her dream to be a horse trainer or a barn manager,” Beasley said during public testimony on the voucher-expansion bill Thursday.
Homeschooling has become increasingly popular in Florida.
According to the Florida Department of Education, since 2011, homeschool enrollment has more than doubled.
More than 150,000 Florida students were homeschooled in the 2021 school year, with more than 8,600 in Duval, 2,500 in Clay and 3,000 in St. Johns County.
Those 150,000-plus homeschooled students would soon be able to access thousands of dollars in taxpayer funded scholarships as part of the bill moving in the State Capitol.
Under the bill, 10,000 homeschooled students would be able to access the scholarships next year and by 2027, all homeschooled students would have access.
“Now with us paying for homeschools, districts won’t be able to keep up quality magnet programs,” State Representative Angie Nixon (D-Jacksonville) said during debate on the bill Thursday.
Nixon argued the bill, which also allows all students to access scholarships to private schools starting next year, goes too far.
There are more than 400,000 students enrolled in private schools in Florida, with about 188,000 receiving some form of state-funded scholarship already.
The bill would open the door for those other private school students and all of Florida’s 2.9 million public school students to receive scholarships that generally run over $7,000 a school year starting next year.
“This bill is not about choice. This bill is about the defunding of public education as we know it,” Nixon said.
Nixon offered an amendment that would have prevented vouchers from being awarded to families with a household income greater than $1 million.
It was rejected, and the bill was advanced unaltered on a vote mostly down party lines.
Bill sponsor Representative Kaylee Tuck (R-Lake Placid) said legislators still haven’t calculated how much they expect the expansion to cost the state.
Some estimates have put the projected cost in the billions of dollars.
Tuck indicated she believes those estimates are overblown.
“I think it’ll be a modest impact. Honestly, I really don’t think we’re going to see the mass exodus of public schools that everybody is claiming. I really do think we have good public schools in our area and the bill is simply about providing parents choice,” Tuck said.
As for those concerned about the voucher expansion pulling money out of public schools, Representative Spencer Roach (R-Fort Myers) argued it’s up to the parents to decide where their tax dollars go.
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“Government education has been in this country and in this state for too long a monopoly. And the only way that you break a monopoly is to inject and allow and encourage competition,” Roach said.