What is Florida’s House Bill 1?
By Karla Suarez Chevres
House Bill 1 and Florida Education
Supporters of school choice are celebrating the progress of Florida House of Representatives Speaker Paul Renner’s, Florida’s Universal Choice Bill, so should you celebrate too? House Bill 1 or “Florida’s ‘Universal Choice Bill’ has been moving through Florida legislature with the support of school choice champions throughout Florida, and it may change your school choices for your scholar as soon as 2024.
WHAT IS HOUSE BILL 1?
House Bill 1 is a plan to give a stipend to pay for a private school, homeschooling or other educational services regardless of income. Essentially the bill removes the low-income requirements from Florida’s school voucher program which could open up school choice opportunities for Florida families and every K-12 public school student in the state if HB1 becomes law.
Republican Rep. Kaylee Tuck shared, “The point of the bill is to expand options to all students regardless of income status.” Additionally, the bill would expand the scope of how parents allocate the funds received. Funds received in an “empowerment savings account”, could be used to pay for tutoring, certification tests, Advanced Placement exams, supplemental education materials, virtual learning through programs like Optima Academy Online, private school, and more.
According to this bill, parents of a K-12 public school-age child in Florida would be eligible to receive a voucher to send their student to a school of their choice as soon as 2024. For House Speaker Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, the bill is a top priority. “School choice empowers parents, creates competition, fosters innovation, and raises the level of excellence in all of our schools,” Renner said. “HB 1 will give every parent the freedom to customize their children’s education with a learning program that fits their unique needs.”
Educational freedom and school choice have been a long-time goal of Americans for Prosperity supporters Charles Koch and Skylar Zander. “These proposals, including universal education savings accounts, represent commonsense reforms that will help parents and students obtain more freedom and educational choice,” said Skylar Zander, AFP Florida state director.
For homeschoolers, virtual learning families, special needs children and families seeking more flexibility in learning opportunities, this could expand their options for receiving essential funds that support their unique educational needs, with less of the financial burden falling to the parents.
CONVERSATIONS SURROUNDING HOUSE BILL 1
Some parents and lawmakers alike worry the bill could lead to a mass exodus from Florida’s public school system, taking state funds along with them. A former Duval School Board Member Elizabeth Anderson is quoted as saying, “We’re talking about having to pull a lot more public dollars to be able to fund this type of expansion,” Anderson said. “And if students are choosing to have a different option or leave public education than they’re going to take those dollars with them.” A concern shared by many families throughout the state.
Opponents, like Representative Angie Nixon from Jacksonville, have introduced, now failed amendments that would have capped the income to $1 million per household. Rep Angie Nixon has said, “I just don’t think we should be subsidizing millionaires to take funding from public schools.” In addition to her attempt to introduce an income cap, Nixon also pushed for a now failed amendment that would have stopped private schools accepting this voucher from discriminating against minority, LGBTQ, or immigrant students.
Scott Hottenstein, president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida, said, “The bill provides an illusion of choice to many of our low-income families.” He is calling on lawmakers to cap tuition increases for those schools accepting vouchers because it could lead to state dollars subsidizing for-profit schools potentially mitigating the positive impact the vouchers would have for school choice.
Renner has been quoted as saying, “Universal choice is universal choice; we don’t pick winners and losers. However, the bill sets forth the priority for people that have limited income to receive scholarships. It also puts at the front of the line — and the lion’s share of the funding for this bill is for — children with unique abilities to make sure we clear that waitlist.” According to Renner, the preference given to households making less than $51,338 for a family of four will work towards clearing the waiting list for special needs scholarships and seemingly will ensure that these families see funds first.
Foundation for Florida’s Future has been integral in the lobbyist efforts to make the Universal Choice Bill a reality. David Struhs, Senior Legislative Direct of Foundation for Florida’s Future says, “I think that what we’ve seen in the public school system is when choices are available, public schools do better. It’s a tide that lifts all boats. And so, I think that this opportunity to provide parents and families with those options will benefit the public school system.”
“It tackles the waitlist for the students with unique abilities. So, these are special education students who may not be able to get the services they need at their traditional public school. And this bill will eliminate that waitlist and ensure that those over 10,000 families are able to take their students to the best environment that will meet that individual child’s needs. And I think that’s a huge accomplishment,” said Struhs.
SO WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE FOR FLORIDA RESIDENTS?
If this bill passes, a family of four with an income exceeding $104,063 annually could still be eligible for scholarships worth $7,250 to $7,850 per student. Additionally, the bill will keep the priority of scholarship distribution for families of four making less than $51,338 or 185% of the federal poverty level that is in current law.
While this may not cover the cost of tuition, it could go a long way to making alternatives to public school more accessible to families who otherwise may be limited by their finances when considering schools for their children. The additional discretion parents will have over the allocation of funds would allow them to use funds for uniforms, books, virtual learning tools, and other education-related costs that current guidelines do not cover.
Homeschool and “Learn from Home families”, like those enrolled in OptimaEd’s virtual courses, will also see a benefit from House Bill 1. While limited to 10,000 students, parents who school at home will be able to be paid under the scholarship program. As these funds can be utilized for more than just schools this will ensure that special needs children can allocate funds for supplemental courses through approved education networks like OptimaEd, to support their educational needs without the constraints of a traditional school environment.
Families who are currently learning from home with Optima Academy Online, or looking to enroll in our courses, will now be able to allocate some of these funds to provide scholars with a more well-rounded, engaging and immersive educational experience that supports their child’s individual educational requirements. Gifted Kids and special needs learners will no longer have to face long waitlists as they struggle in educational environments that cannot meet their individual needs.
“This historic legislation empowers parents, ensuring they direct the significant funding Florida taxpayers are dedicating to education to the best education program for their child,” Passidomo said in a released statement. “Here in the free State of Florida, we trust parents to make the best decisions for their children. This visionary bill ensures school choice remains a reality for every child in every family across our great state by providing parents the chance to guide how and where the funding for their children’s education is spent.”
House Bill 1 has continued to garner support from House leaders and school choice advocates alike, as they continue to lead the charge on improving educational opportunities for students throughout every area of Florida, regardless of their child’s individual needs or their educational venue. “The goal of providing more choice, more freedom and greater opportunity for families and students is paramount to educational success and moving Florida forward,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Tom Leek, an Ormond Beach Republican.
As Florida’s Universal Choice Bill continues to make its way through Florida State Legislature, it is important to understand the potential impact on your child’s educational options. Approval of this bill would be the greatest expansion of the school voucher program since the Jeb administration. The new guidelines may significantly improve access to education for families throughout the state, especially those scholars who have special educational needs that require a unique approach to learning that many schools cannot or do not offer. Lawmakers will be returning in March of 2023 for another legislative session to continue to navigate the potential impact of HB 1.