Two states passed significant school choice bills designed to give low-income families the opportunity to send their children to private schools they might not otherwise be able to afford.
The Florida Legislature has approved legislation creating the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) program, which Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign. The program would allow up to 18,000 students to receive vouchers to attend private schools in the first year of the program, with room for growth in future years.
The scholarships would be publicly funded by the state and would be equal to 95% of the state contribution to school districts per student. Families making up to 300% of the federal poverty level would be eligible to participate, however those with lower incomes would be prioritized.
The impetus for the program arose out of the waiting list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program (FTC). Despite being one of the largest school choice programs in the country, the FTC has a waiting list of 13,000 students. Earlier in the year, Governor DeSantis called for the Legislature to pass new legislation that would meet the educational needs of families on the waiting list.
The new legislation also brings to fruition a goal that has been pursued by school choice advocates in Florida since Jeb Bush was governor. The former governor was on the floor of the Florida House of Representatives when the final vote was tallied and tweeted, “Incredible day in Tallahassee to witness the passage of historic legislation that will usher in greater educational freedom for Florida families.”
A 2006 decision by the Florida Supreme Court struck down a voucher program signed into law by Governor Bush in 1999. However, in the intervening years, that decision has come under heavy criticism, and this year Governor DeSantis appointed three new justices to Florida high court. School choice advocates are hopeful that the new program will survive a court challenge.
Tennessee’s state legislature has approved legislation creating an education savings account (ESA) program. Eligible students will be able to use on average $7,300 in public funds for private school tuition and other education expenses such as textbooks, tutoring, and online classes.
While Tennessee already has an ESA program for special needs students, the new program will be open to all students from low-income families, though, crucially, only in Shelby and Davidson counties (Memphis and Nashville). Fivethousand students will be allowed to participate in the program’s first year, with that number increasing to 15,000 by year five. Students in the program will be required to take the state assessment on English and math.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, who made school choice a priority in his first year in office, tweeted his support, describing the bill as an “ESA bill that provides more choices for more students and families. This is an important day and I look forward to signing this bill into law.”
According to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, “Governor Lee’s top legislative priority gives thousands of children their first real opportunity to select the educational setting that best fits their needs and confirms school choice is here to stay in Tennessee.”
Shaka Mitchell, Tennessee State Director of the American Federation for Children, said in a statement, “Today’s vote marks a historic victory for students in Tennessee. Members of the House and Senate voted to open doors for children who have been trapped in failing schools for far too long. They voted to rightly give families choice when it comes to their child’s education. They voted to set children on a path to success.”
In April, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited Tennessee and led a roundtable discussion on school choice at the state Capitol in Nashville with Governor Lee. According to the Department of Education, Secretary DeVos said, “I’m pleased to see education leaders in Tennessee willing to act boldly on behalf of their students. Governor Lee is passionate about improving education outcomes and is working hard to introduce creative changes to the current system.”