ORLANDO, Fla. — Despite going to battle with Disney over so-called “woke” ideologies and student indoctrination, Florida leaders appear to have no problem funneling taxpayer money to the theme parks in the form of “school choice” vouchers.
Tickets to Florida’s theme parks are among the allowances on the list of reimbursements published by Step up for Students, which runs the school choice voucher program, over the summer, along with TVs under 55 inches, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, surfboards, treadmills and other items drawing scrutiny from Democrats and public school advocates.
“That’s a huge concern of mine, that taxpayer money being taken out of public education for private education and what we’re finding is that people are using that for trips and things like that,” Rep. Rita Harris (D-Orange County) said.
The tickets were a new addition to this year’s list, appearing on the list of prohibited items during the 2022-2023 school year. Most of the rest of the list is unchanged and includes dozens of items that are less brow-raising, like basic supplies, technology and sensory equipment.
However, the program itself is very different. In the past, the $8,000 vouchers were restricted to low-income families and students with disabilities.
That changed in March with the passage of HB-1, which removed the income caps. Up to 100,000 students were expected to take advantage of the change. Opponents decried it as a giveaway to the rich and a private or religious school subsidy.
The inclusion of the fancy items is adding fuel to those fears – as well as increased accusations of hypocrisy after conservatives spent much of the past two years demanding schools get “back to the basics.”
“I don’t feel like do we should be using public funds for these type of items,” Harris said.
The reimbursements come with spending caps for each category and on individual items. Some items also require pre-approval. Items like park tickets are restricted to the students only and have a $500 annual cap. Ticket reimbursement requests must also be accompanied by a form that explains the trip’s educational value.
Step Up for Students did not return a request for comment emailed Friday afternoon. School choice backers defended the list by saying educations included more than white boards and pencils, and immersive experiences like field trips and physical education were available to public school students.
“To engage young people today, we need to do a lot more than just have them show up,” the Center for Education Reform’s Jeanne Allen told the Tampa Bay Times, which first publicized the list. “They expect 21st century approaches to learning and recreational opportunities for their physical and mental well-being.”
Harris said she’d return to Tallahassee this winter and request a review of the voucher program to make sure taxpayer money was being used wisely.
“I think we need to be really careful,” she said. “We support school choice, but we want to make sure that it’s done correctly.”
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