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The Leaflet: Florida and Tennessee Are Blazing the School Choice Trail

May 3, 2019

Two school choice bills are soon to become law in Florida and Tennessee.

A school voucher bill in Florida is about to cross the legislative finish line. Adopted by the state Senate during the past week, the bill passed the House on Tuesday and now awaits the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch school choice advocate.

What could be the latest addition to the Sunshine State’s school choice platform, the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, would direct $130 million of public funds to scholarship-funding organizations that grant K–12 tuition vouchers to eligible students. Children from a family of four with a household income up to $77,250 would qualify for the scholarship, although lower-income families would receive preference. Each voucher would be equivalent to 95 percent of the state district average per-pupil funding, and it could be redeemed at participating private schools.

Passage of the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program is a response to the 13,000 students currently waiting for a spot in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is the largest school choice program in the nation, in terms of participation. When the bill becomes law, it will be the Sunshine State’s second voucher program and fifth school choice program.

The Florida bill passed just one day before Tennessee’s House and Senate agreed on the final version of an education savings account (ESA) bill. Soon to be the Volunteer State’s second school choice program, the bill is expected to be signed by Gov. Bill Lee, who has championed it since taking office this year.

The legislation would provide an estimated $7,300 annually to eligible students in low-performing schools. The ESA program would begin in the 2021–22 school year with 5,000 students. It would eventually be capped at 15,000. ESAs are the most robust type of school choice program. ESAs are loaded with state funds each year and come with a parent-controlled debit card that can be used to purchase a variety of educational expenses, including tuition, tutoring, and educational therapies. 

Parents and kids in Florida and Tennessee will surely celebrate their expanded educational opportunities. An American Federation for Children survey of Volunteer State voters conducted in February 2019 found 78 percent support ESAs, with 75 percent of independents and 68 percent of Democrats providing support for the reform. Additionally, a February 2019 survey by the Foundation for Excellence in Education found 78 percent of registered Florida voters support school choice.

The popularity of these programs is not surprising considering that copious empirical research on vouchers and ESAs shows that they offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices.
 

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Author
Arianna Wilkerson works in government relations at The Heartland Institute.
awilkerson@heartland.org