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Florida expands its voucher program to every student, regardless of income

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Florida is on the verge of what could be the country's biggest expansion of a school choice program, even though no one seems to know how much it will cost. The Florida state Senate put the price tag at $646 million. Other estimates go as high as $4 billion. Lynn Hatter of WFSU has been looking into it.

LYNN HATTER, BYLINE: Florida already has a school voucher program. It's primarily for children who are low to moderate income or have special needs. They can use state money to attend private school or spend it on some educational support services. But Republican lawmakers have voted to expand that program a lot. The new proposal allows all children in the state to become eligible regardless of their family income. That's similar to what Arizona offers its students.

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MITZI EPSTEIN: Our leadership and our majority side decided to expand vouchers without funding it.

HATTER: That's Arizona state Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein, a Democrat. Epstein recently spoke with Florida Democrats about what she calls a $200- to $300 million budget hole in her state due to its universal voucher program.

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EPSTEIN: It could extend to as much as $1 billion, and our entire budget is only $15 or $16 billion.

HATTER: Arizona isn't the only state grappling with a cost problem. A recent estimate on a plan to let all kids in Ohio become eligible for school vouchers was priced at $1 billion, though that bill's sponsor has taken issue with the estimate. For school choice supporters, the potential financial impact of finally getting what advocates have called universal school choice is worth it, no matter the cost. It's something Florida has worked toward for more than 25 years.

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SHARYN KERWIN: Throughout Grace's K-12 journey, our family utilized a variety of school choice options, including hospital homebound schooling.

HATTER: That's Sharyn Kerwin, a Tallahassee mom who has used school choice for her daughter, who has a medical condition. She recently testified at a committee hearing.

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KERWIN: Grace is now a thriving freshman at Lee University. Without flexible education options, this would not have been possible.

HATTER: The state is banking on the idea that not every private school or homeschool family will want to access the funding and that others will likely choose to stay put in their public, traditional and charter schools. So getting an exact number for an estimate has been a challenge.

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SUE WOLTANSKI: It's nonsensical to believe that half of the families currently paying to send their children to these private schools will not apply to get the free money. Of course, they will.

HATTER: Sue Woltanski is a Monroe County School Board member, She testified during a House committee hearing on the bill in February. Woltanski says she believes the $4 billion estimate put forward by the Florida Policy Institute is more in line with reality than what the legislature has put forward. The proposal has been panned by public school supporters who worry it will further drain resources as children leave those systems. But Senate bill sponsor Corey Simon has maintained his plan for universal choice keeps the focus on the kids and not the systems.

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COREY SIMON: If we were talking about spending $2 billion on public education right now, everybody would have their hands up and say, yes, yes, yes, I vote yes. What we are fighting over is funding a system instead of a student.

HATTER: And Simon says it should be about the students. Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill. For NPR News, I'm Lynn Hatter in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.