Amid high demand for school vouchers for students with disabilities, the Florida Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill that would temporarily lift a cap on participation in a voucher program.
The Senate and House unanimously passed the measure (HB 3C) as part of a special legislative session that dealt with a range of issues. It is ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who this spring approved a bill that massively expanded state voucher programs to try to provide what supporters described as “universal school choice.”
The newly passed measure focuses on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities program, which has been limited to nearly 41,000 children this school year. The bill would eliminate the cap this year and allow the Florida Department of Education and organizations that administer vouchers for the state to determine the maximum number of vouchers that will be available.
After this school year, the program would go back to using a formula to determine maximum capacity. A House staff analysis said that, beginning next school year, the cap “shall annually increase by three percent of the state’s total ESE (exceptional student education) student membership, not including gifted students.”
Senate bill sponsor Jay Collins, R-Tampa, pointed to a waiting list of roughly 8,900 students seeking vouchers in the program.
“As a parent of a unique-abilities child, there are a cavalcade of different things that you deal with. And making sure that we provide those opportunities to those parents, to those families, is unequivocally and unquestionably the right thing to do,” Collins said.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and Republican sponsors of the bills have said families would have until Dec. 15 to apply for the vouchers.
House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, told reporters after the House passed the bill Tuesday, that the cap on the number of vouchers in the program was a “fiscal constraint,” and he cited a “sliding scale of severity” of needs of students.
The broad population of Florida students can receive vouchers worth about $8,000. But in the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities program, Renner said the amount may be more than $20,000. “It’s harder for us to estimate that,” he said.
Step Up for Students, a nonprofit organization that administers the Unique Abilities vouchers, said on its website that the average amount of the scholarships this school year is $9,900.
Renner, a major backer of vouchers, indicated that lawmakers could look during the 2024 legislative session at the way participation in the program and scholarship costs are estimated. The 2024 session will start in January.
“I think we need to look at, is there a better way to estimate this? I don't really like the cap. I don’t believe we should have a cap, necessarily. But it was a fiscal constraint because it’s harder to estimate those kids,” Renner said. “We just don’t know who’s coming and how severe their situation is and how much money would be attributed to the total amount of people in that program.”