Joint letter asks Florida education head for transparency on universal vouchers
As Florida rolls into its first school year with a universal voucher program, an estimated 300,000 students will use it for private schooling and 45,000 for homeschooling, according to the state’s primary scholarship program. It’s grown steadily while critics bemoan what will happen to the public school system when any family – rich and poor alike – can use public dollars for private schooling.
Meanwhile, “little is known about the characteristics of the students applying, the future budgetary consequences of these scholarships, and the likely downstream impact on public schools,” according to a letter sent to Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. on Wednesday.
Overall, 31 groups signed a letter from the ACLU of Florida, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP Florida State Conference and the Florida Council of Churches. (Private schools include parochial and other religious schools.)
Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up for Students, provided an estimate to the Florida Phoenix on the scholarship program. He said on Wednesday that “nobody right now knows how many kids are going to use the scholarship, I don’t know,” Tuthill said. “I always say: I want to wait until late October [to have] a really good sense of what the utilization is.”
In addition, Tuthill said that there is a difference between scholarships being “awarded” and “funded.”
“Just because a family gets awarded a scholarship doesn’t mean they’re going to use it,” Tuthill said. “My guess is that there will probably be 100,000 students who get awarded scholarships who decide not to use them.”
Meanwhile, the groups’ letter to Commissioner Diaz says not enough information about the voucher program has been disclosed to the public.
Norín Dollard, a senior policy analyst with the Florida Policy Institute, said she is concerned about the lack of transparency about what will happen if available revenue is expended and how many students are using the program for private school vs. home school.
“It is not clear or transparent about what the long-term plan for sustaining scholarships over time, and there have been no plans offered on what will happen if the allocation is exceeded,” Dollard said. “The current model is not sustainable in the future without additional revenue being added on to support the expansion of vouchers.”
The letter requests statistics such as number of new private schools that have applied to accept scholarships, demographic information of scholarship applicants, the number of homeschooled students who have applied, and the number of students in the program who have never before attended public school.
It also requests that the Department of Education provide greater information on the budgetary impact of the universal scholarship programs – such as what would happen if the program’s costs exceed its allocated revenue.
It also asked that the information be available to the public and updated regularly.
The Florida Department of Education did not respond to The Phoenix’s request for comment.
The expanded voucher program, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March, eliminates any income cap for students to receive a voucher – which typically comes out to $7,700 to be used on either private school tuition or homeschooling materials, according to Step Up for Students.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Step Up For Students said the timing of the letter was “puzzling” because they have been “providing FPI and media organizations data on scholarship applications since July (and starting this week, enrollments), broken down by county and compared to the same date in the previous year.”
This story has been updated.