January 27, 2023
The Florida Legislature’s 2023 session will begin in early March, soon after Major League Baseball pitchers and catchers report to spring training camps in Florida. But incoming House Speaker Paul Renner has already signaled his interest in being the “closer” in Florida school choice policy.
Last week, Speaker Renner announced that the Florida House’s No. 1 legislative priority – H.B. 1 – will be passage of a highly-innovative flexible scholarship program that will make every Florida student eligible for school choice assistance. Renner’s initiative is notable because it closes some existing gaps in scholarship eligibility – and because it closes out the Florida Legislature’s two-decade-long march towards universal school choice coverage.
Importantly, the Speaker’s initiative also gives greater flexibility to all Florida families participating in the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) program. Currently, most FES recipients receive a one-time tuition voucher that they can use at the private school of their choice. But H.B. 1 would give all families the freedom to purchase “unbundled” education resources – such as curriculum, tutoring, or online courses – from multiple providers.
This flexibility means that interested families would be able to select the educational equivalent of “a la carte” courses – rather than a “combo” platter – for their children. And it means that new education providers are apt to arise, as people with specialized expertise develop individual courses for K-12 students. Could Florida History courses taught by scholars at the Museum of Florida History be around the corner? How about Hebrew classes taught by a local rabbi? Or a marine biology course taught by a local aquarium?
By giving families “choices within choice,” Renner says parents will be able to “customize” education to meet each child’s individual learning needs.
This ability to customize education using Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) has proved very useful to Florida families with special-needs children over the last decade. In fact, flexible ESA programs are so popular that more than 9,000 Florida families with special-needs children currently have their names on a waiting list for scholarship assistance. Appropriately, Renner’s proposal would remove these families from the waiting list by giving them priority in receiving scholarship assistance (along with families that are low income).
“Florida has been a leader in the school choice movement, with more students participating in choice programs than any other state,” Renner says. “School choice empowers parents, creates competition, fosters innovation, and raises the level of excellence in all of our schools.”
Rep. Kaylee Tuck, who chairs the House Education Choice & Innovation Subcommittee, echoes Renner’s emphasis on academic excellence. “School choice helped elevate Florida from being one of the worst education states in America to being ranked third in K-12 achievement,” she notes. “Empowering parents and students with customizable learning options will not only boost educational outcomes for individual students but will create competition that raises the bar for schools across the state.”
Tuck is right to cite the role that school choice has played in Florida’s remarkable ascent in K-12 education over the last two decades. And Renner deserves credit for making this important legislation the House’s #1 priority – and for signaling his interest in being “The Closer” in Florida education choice policy.