DeSantis signs school choice expansion bill

It expands eligibility for private school tuition scholarships and establishes education savings accounts.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves to the crowd as he attends an event Friday, March 10, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Ron Johnson)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill Monday that removes income restrictions from the state’s school choice programs, adding to the list of states this year to enact universal school choice legislation.

The new law expands eligibility for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for private school tuition to any student who is a state resident and is eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12 in a public school. It also establishes education savings accounts for eligible students, which provide an average of $8,000 each, and gives preference to middle- and lower-income students.

Florida follows Iowa, Arkansas and Utah in enacting universal school choice legislation this year, while other states are still considering it. West Virginia and Arizona enacted similar laws in recent years. 

At a bill signing press conference, DeSantis stressed that the legislation was designed to give parents more input in their child’s education — a theme popular among Republicans, particularly after Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) victorious 2021 campaign centered on parental control of curricula and other aspects of education.

“Parents are going to be able to have the ability to get money for their student, for their child, and they can do tuition,” DeSantis said. “They’re also going to be able to use it for things like tutoring and for other things that can be very important in a child’s development and well being.”

Action on the bill marks another legislative victory for DeSantis, who is expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination for president and is regarded as the top rival to former President Donald Trump (R).

Here are more details about the new school choice law:

  • Opens Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship programs to all eligible students.
  • Prioritizes students with household incomes that do not exceed 185% of the federal poverty level and creates a second tier of priority from 185% to 400%.
  • Private schools must meet specific criteria in order to be eligible to participate in Florida’s scholarship programs and the Department of Education and commissioner of education are tasked with implementation and oversight responsibilities.
  • Expands the life of temporary teaching certificates to five years.
  • Allows teachers candidates rated “effective” or very “effective” for three years to forgo taking the state’s required general knowledge test 
  • Requires the state Board of Education to recommend repeals of state education law.

The law also seeks to remove barriers to recruiting teachers, including allowing those rated effective or higher for three years to skip the state’s general knowledge exam. The measure would expand the length of temporary teaching certificates to five years from three.

The bill also requires the state board of education, with input from stakeholders, to report to the governor and legislature recommended repeals and revisions to the education code to reduce regulation on public schools.

Democrats were critical of the bill. Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book (D) said the bill would help people that don’t need it.

“The State of Florida shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to fund private school educations for millionaires’ kids…but here we are,” Book wrote on Twitter. “Everyday people in this state deserve better than free handouts for the excessively wealthy designed to defund public schools!”

The independent Florida Policy Institute said the bill would cost $4 billion in the first year. The Florida Education Association said it would result in less funding for public schools.  

“This bill is going to make life tougher for a lot of kids,” Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said in a statement. “It will mean fewer resources in their schools, and fewer teachers and staff to meet their day-to-day needs.”