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Dramatic Increase in Flow of Dollars from Public School Districts Funds Private Education in Florida, Report Says

ORLANDO, Fla. - The flow of state school aid to vouchers for private schooling has reached an estimated $1.3 billion in the wake of the Florida Legislature’s enactment of the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) program in 2019, according to a new research report by Education Law Center (ELC) and Florida Policy Institute (FPI).

The report, Florida's Hidden Voucher Expansion: Over $1 Billion From Public Schools to Fund Private Education, finds that the dramatic rise in funding redirected from Florida’s public school districts to vouchers in 2022-23 represents 10% of total state aid for public education. This diversion of public funds to vouchers directly from school districts is in addition to a potential $1.1 billion in public dollars diverted from the state treasury through vouchers financed by corporate tax credits.

The report finds that:

  • Between 2019-20 and 2022-23, funding redirected to private education from the Florida Education Financing Program (FEFP), the state’s school funding formula, increased by $1 billion.
  • The increase in diverted funds outpaced increases in public school funding.
  • As of 2022-23, an estimated 10% of the $13.2 billion in state aid for public schools will be diverted to private education through the FES voucher program, up from 3% in 2019-20.
  • The entire cost of private school vouchers, comprising both state and local funding, is diverted from school districts’ state aid; therefore, districts that are more reliant on local funding will see proportionately larger state aid cuts.

Gadsden County is the school district most highly impacted by voucher costs, losing 9% of their total FEFP budget to vouchers. Miami-Dade will lose $225 million to private education via FES vouchers, representing 8% of the district’s total FEFP budget.

Voucher expansion has happened quickly and relatively quietly, opening the door for public funds to flow to private education with very little accountability for how funds are spent and few protections for students’ civil rights or against discrimination. The sudden loss of a significant portion of their budgets will impact already underfunded school districts’ ability to respond to the needs of their students.

Education advocates gathered at a virtual press conference this morning to voice their concerns.

“By rerouting substantial dollars from public schools to support private education, the educational environment of students throughout the state is being severely eroded,” said Mary McKillip, ELC Senior Researcher and report author. “The state of Florida is turning its back on public school students at a time when more resources, not less, are needed.”

“It’s concerning that an enormous amount of tax dollars are being railroaded to private schools with virtually no transparency or accountability,” said Norín Dollard, PhD, Senior Policy Analyst and KIDS COUNT Director at FPI. “Investing in quality public schools should be one of state lawmakers’ top priorities as we fast approach the 2023 legislative session.”

Ensuring that public dollars remain in public schools and increasing state investment in K-12 public education is crucial to improving educational outcomes. In the short-term, ELC and FPI recommend that Florida lawmakers take the following steps to help districts and students:

  • Require the Florida Department of Education to increase transparency in the movement of funds, including greater visibility and up-to-date figures;
  • Halt voucher eligibility expansions and enact a periodic income recertification process;
  • Implement firm restrictions on the amount of funds a district may be required to redirect annually to private education to allow districts to better manage their budgets; and
  • Consider state funding in the form of transitional aid to support public school districts seeing a significant increase in voucher costs.

“Currently, Florida ranks 42nd in the country in K-12 per pupil funding,” said Rocky Hanna, Superintendent of Leon County Public Schools. “Given this alarming statistic, it is an absolute travesty that the Florida legislature and governor have made it a priority to expand the private school voucher program in the State of Florida and commit over $1.3 billion public tax dollars to support private schools with private interests throughout the state with zero accountability.”

“With the increase in the income eligibility cap to $100,000, private school vouchers are now shifting local taxpayer dollars from our local schools that have families at poverty level, which gives more opportunities to our wealthier students at the expense of our students who really need the resources,” said Teresa Potter, President and Education Action Chair, Hillsborough County League of Women Voters. “Our students who need the most help often don’t have access to private schools.â?¯Entry tests, transportation requirements and lack of accommodations for special needs are some barriers to entry, but the school district is now being left without the funds to provide the additional support these students need.”

"When public funds are unjustly reallocated to private schools underâ?¯voucher schemes, including those using misleading labels likeâ?¯scholarships and tax credits, already underfunded public schools and the children who rely on them suffer,” said Bacardi Jackson, Interim Deputy Legal Director, Children’s Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center and SPLC Action Fund. “Public schools are the only schools thatâ?¯serveâ?¯allâ?¯children irrespective of their religion, race, orientation, identity or language, that are accountable to the public,â?¯that meet the most stringent state standards and that are bound by federal laws to protect the rights of children with disabilities.â?¯This report highlights the need for change in Florida where more than $1 billion public education dollars are siphoned annually toâ?¯privatizers that are allowed to use public money to discriminate against children and families and to deepen the segregation of our schools."

“In a state that prides itself on parental choice, Florida’s voucher system forces families to make important education decisions with blindfolders on,” said Melissa Erickson, Executive Director of Alliance for Public Schools. “This system of privately owned, largely unregulated schools receives millions of our tax dollars with no oversight, accountability, or guarantees for our children.”

"This report has made it clear that Florida's public school districts are losing millions of dollars each year to vouchers," said Cecile M. Scoon, Esq., President of the League of Women Voters of Florida. "If the state continues to expand school choice options and vouchers for them, our district schools will have to continue cutting corners to provide even basic services. It is crucial that Florida's elected officials and their appointees distribute funds in truly equitable ways that benefit all of Florida’s school-aged children, not just a select few."

Education Law Center, founded in 1973, pursues education justice and equity to ensure that all students receive a high quality public education effectively preparing them to participate as citizens in a democratic society and as valued contributors to a robust economy.

FPI is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing state policies and budgets that improve the economic mobility and quality of life for all Floridians.