Florida is committed to investing billions on tax-funded school choice vouchers to pay private school tuition for an ever-widening cadre of eligible K-12 students in the coming years.
Democrats will again attempt in 2021 to impose the same academic and oversight standards that public schools must meet on more than 2,800 private schools attended by 400,000 K-12 students across the state.
Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, has filed 36-page Senate Bill 254, which would do away with “various inconsistencies in requirements for the three types of schools in Florida Statute” and replace it with “uniformity among public, private and charter schools.”
Stewart filed similar bills in 2019 and 2020 that failed to advance in committee. Her 2021 bill has been forwarded to Senate Education and Appropriations committees and the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
SB 254 would mandate all instructors to have at least a bachelor’s degree and require that private schools meet state guidelines on school construction, academic standards, administering state exams, receiving state grades, and requiring at least 20 minutes of recess for primary schools.
Under current Florida law, private schools establish their own system of school accountability, grading, reporting, and evaluating that do not have to meet standards for public schools.
As of July 1, according to the Florida Department of Education’s (DOE) 2019-20 Private Schools report:
Of 3.274 million PK-12 students enrolled in Florida schools during the 2019-20 school year, 397,970 (12.2 percent) were private school students and 2,876,042 (87.8 percent) were public school students.
Compared with the 2018-19 school year, the total number of private schools in 2019-20 increased by 132 to 2,812 schools and the total PK-12 enrollment increased by 17,675 students.
Of the 397,970 students enrolled in Florida private schools in 2019-20, 11.3 percent were enrolled in prekindergarten, 7.5 percent in kindergarten, 34.1 percent in grades 1-5, 21.5 percent in grades 6-8, and 25.6 percent in grades 9-12.
Twenty-five school districts had 10 percent or more of their total PK-12 students enrolled in private schools in 2019-20.
There were 309,730 K-12 students enrolled in 658 charter schools operated by contractors under public school supervision statewide.
SB 254 is unlikely to gain traction in the GOP-controlled Legislature but Stewart maintains it addresses issues lawmakers must contend with as the state ramps up its school choice program, already the nation’s largest.
“I’m not trying to limit the options alternative choice schools seek to offer, but address the lack of accountability for the sake of all children,” Stewart said. “Regardless of school choice, there should be qualified instructional personnel, and not substandard conditions, which is an irresponsible use of tax dollars, and it’s up to the Legislature to do something about it. We owe this to all the children.”
Of the state’s 397,970 private school students, 104,000 are attending 1,825 private institutions via the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) program, the state’s largest school choice voucher plan.
The FTC is funded by private contributions, mostly from corporations, in exchange for tax credits. In 2019, however, with 15,000-plus students on FTC’s waiting list, lawmakers created the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ behest.
Under the FES, private school vouchers are funded for the first time directly by the state at 95 percent of the full-time equivalent (FTE) allocation for public school students – $7,250 – with increases capped at a quarter-percent of the state's K-12 population annually from a base enrollment of 18,000 students.
During the 2020 session, lawmakers adopted HB 7067, broadening the expansion of FES vouchers to 1 percent. Under a quarter-percent cap, 7,225 additional students would have been eligible. At 1 percent, 28,902 students are eligible, potentially expanding FES to 46,626 students.