ORLANDO, Fla. — Close to 18,000 more Central Florida students have been approved for vouchers that use taxpayer money to subsidize private, charter and “choice” school educations after Florida expanded access to the program under HB 1, according to data from the organization that processes the applications.
The change, signed into law earlier this year, allowed students of all income levels to be eligible for the program. It was previously limited to low-income students.
The expanded program – and its popularity – have been hailed by school choice supporters as a way to give middle class children top-tier educational opportunities.
“I expect we’re going to serve probably somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 more kids this year,” Step up for Students (SUFS) President Doug Tuthill said. “A lot of parents very excited about these opportunities, I think we’re probably going to continue to have applications all the way through the fall, maybe into November.”
According to SUFS data, as of July 27, Seminole County had seen 68% more applications approved since last year, the highest number in Central Florida. When solely income-based programs were considered, the increase jumped to 86%.
Flagler, Sumter, Brevard, and Lake counties rounded up the top five, all with at least 38% more applications compared to 2022. Osceola County had the smallest increase in the region, with just 13%.
If every Central Florida student approved for a voucher enrolls in an eligible school – an extremely unlikely prospect – the voucher program would send $138 million to those schools, based on an $7,775 median awarded funding.
Under those same assumptions, the program cost would exceed $2.7 billion state-wide. So far, that cost falls within the state’s budget projections.
“I have every confidence [the actual cost] will be within that bucket that we set aside for this year,” House Speaker Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) said during an interview earlier this month, before the data was released. “The idea that we’re giving this as a giveaway to millionaires and billionaires just is not going to play out, it will be a huge help to a lot of middle class parents who really want to make sure their kid goes to the very best school possible.”
Opponents of the expanded program have latched onto those criticisms that the program would be mostly utilized by the wealthy who are already sending their children to private schools. Their claims were given credence by reports that a Tampa-area school raised its tuition costs to take advantage of the vouchers.
Advocates for public schools have also claimed the expanded vouchers would worsen the inequity among school districts. They fear that declining enrollment would lead to budget cuts, or the state simply transferring money from public school budgets to private schools that follow less stringent standards.
“No parent wants their child’s school to meet just bare minimum standards, but parents are unaware that many voucher schools have no standards at all,” talking points from the Florida Education Association, the primary lobbying group for public school teachers, said. “No standards for who can teach there, no standards for what students are expected to learn, and no standards for safety.”
The approved numbers will be different than the numbers who actually enroll in voucher schools, but enrollment data won’t be available until after the new school year begins.
Tuthill said he believes there’s room for all in the new system, especially since school districts continue to struggle with the overall influx of residents into the state.
“There’s a lot of options in education, and that’s the culture we’re in now,” he said. “The culture is people want choices.”
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