Thankfully, there is still time for the Florida Legislature to reverse course and delete the new PEP restrictions.
Florida education officials have been turning cartwheels in recent months thanks to the success of our state’s school choice programs. After a monumental 2023 expansion, Florida now has over 350,000 students enrolled in its K-12 scholarship programs — more than every other state combined.
It’s little wonder, then, that the Heritage Foundation ranked Florida #1 in “Education Freedom” late last year.
Still, amid all the fanfare and (much-deserved) accolades, a recent report from Step Up for Students identified a serious problem in our state’s programs. For the current school year, more than 90,000 Florida families applied for and were awarded scholarships that they then chose not to use.
That’s right. Ninety thousand.
The size of this gap suggests that the supply of learning options is failing to keep up with demand. And part of the problem appears to be that some existing private schools (especially in the faith-based sector) have adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude about participating in Florida’s scholarship programs.
These private schools are nervous that once they start accepting scholarship students, the state will at some point “pull the rug out from under them” and subject them to onerous restrictions that make it difficult for these schools to continue instructing students in the manner they deem best.
Strangely, the Florida Legislature may be about to add to this climate of anxiety by “pulling the rug out from under” another historically cautious population — home-schoolers.
Last year’s school choice expansion allowed interested home-schoolers to receive scholarship money for Personalized Education Programs (PEP). As a result, PEP home-schoolers can now be reimbursed for a wide array of “unbundled” education expenses — including curricula, tutors, testing, workbooks and other learning tools.
Last fall, some school choice critics raised a fuss about some of the allowable learning expenses. But these objections typically fizzled upon closer examination. For example, some expressed surprise that field trips to SeaWorld were an allowable expense — until it was pointed out that many public schools take field trips to this theme park and others like it.
Still, school choice critics have dug in their heels. And they’ve apparently convinced some state legislators that regulatory nitpicking is needed. Accordingly, a bill making its way through the Florida Legislature would introduce sweeping new restrictions on allowable PEP uses — including prohibitions against all equipment expenses for art, music, physical education, foreign languages and various elective courses.
In other words, PEP families would no longer be able to use their scholarship money for easels, paints, modeling clay, musical instruments, kickballs, basketballs, and many other items commonly found in public schools. These new restrictions would come down even though PEP students cost the Florida taxpayer less than public school students. And even though home-school students typically receive their primary instruction from an “unpaid volunteer” (Mom).
Look, no one wants to see waste, fraud and abuse in K-12 education. But a strong case can be made that Florida regulators are barking up the wrong tree. Indeed, on the day the new PEP restrictions were introduced, a Miami-Dade public school official was indicted on a charge of embezzling $100,000. And soon after the first legislative hearing was held on the new PEP restrictions, a Broward County official admitted that $300,000 in public school funds had been paid out to a now-defunct company for graduation hats, gowns and supplies that never arrived.
Thankfully, there is still time for the Florida Legislature to reverse course and delete the new PEP restrictions. And there are at least 90,000 good reasons to do so.
Yes, Florida has the most amazing school choice programs in the country. But to stay on top, we’ve got to send signals to all of the understandably nervous parents, providers, and prospective providers that the Sunshine State is committed to education freedom for the long haul.
Put another way, the Florida Legislature needs to reassure school choice proponents that the Sunshine State isn’t going to pull the rug out from under anyone. For as Jay-Z might say, we’ve got 90,000 problems — and easels ain’t one.