Jeb Bush Finally Gets His Pet Voucher Program Passed (Again) in Florida

Jeb Bush has fallen out of the national headlines, but Florida continues to be dominated by his policies and those of the advocacy organization and so-called think tank he founded, ExcelinEd, formerly known as the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

On Tuesday, Florida’s House passed a new school voucher bill, the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, which had already passed the Senate. Florida’s newly elected Governor Ron DeSantis, a strong advocate for privatization of public education, is expected to sign the bill.

Bush’s fingerprints are all over this bill which expands Florida’s vouchers. The Miami Herald‘s Emily Mahoney reports: “Bush, 66, was on the floor of the House when the bill came to a final vote, along with commissioner of education and former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, plus Senate leaders, all of whom stood up and applauded when the bill passed 76-39… Bush posted a photo to Twitter that showed him with the Legislature’s leadership as well as the sponsors of the bill in the House and Senate. ‘Incredible day in Tallahassee to witness the passage of historic legislation that will usher in greater educational freedom for Florida families,’ he wrote.”

Maybe you were thinking that Florida already had a voucher program, and you’d be correct. When he was Florida’s governor, Bush pushed through another school voucher program, but, in the 2006 decision in Bush V. Holmes, the Florida Supreme Court found the vouchers unconstitutional under the state’s Blaine Amendment, which bans the expenditure of public dollars for religious schools.

This year, however, the members of Florida’s Republican legislative majority believe things may be different, because Florida’s new Governor Ron DeSantis has just appointed three new justices to the state’s supreme court.

Mahoney explores the constitutional issues: “When Bush helped pass a similar program during his tenure from 1999-2007, it was ruled unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court—raising serious questions about how this proposal will fare in the judicial branch. In January, DeSantis appointed three new conservative justices who may rule differently on the bill.”

Florida also operates another kind of school voucher program—a tuition tax credit program that has not been questioned under Florida’s constitution because the dollars diverted to private school tuition scholarships do not come directly out of state coffers. The News Service of Florida‘s Jim Saunders explains: “Vouchers have long been one of the most controversial issues in Florida’s education system—a controversy that accelerated after Bush was elected in 1998 with a platform that focused heavily on revamping the system.  Since that time, tens of thousands of students have used voucher-type programs to attend private schools. As an example, 108,098 students received what are known as tax-credit scholarships during the 2017-2018 school year… In that program, businesses receive tax credits for contributions they make to non-profit organizations. The organizations then use the contributions to provide voucher-like scholarships for largely low-income students to go to private schools.”

But, explains Saunders, “The new Family Empowerment Scholarship Program… has crucial differences that have drawn heavy debate.  In part, it would be funded directly by the state rather than through the more-indirect route of tax credits. Also, the new voucher would be available to families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $77,250 for a family of four.”

In a scathing editorial castigating the new voucher bill, the Tampa Bay Times describes the impact of DeSantis’s election last fall on the state’s public school policy: “The outcome of this year’s voucher debate in the decades-long dismantlement of traditional public schools was never in doubt. It was sealed when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis was narrowly elected governor in November and quickly appointed three conservatives to the Florida Supreme Court. The overhaul of the court emboldened the Republican-led Legislature to approve the creation of vouchers that are clearly unconstitutional, confident that an expected legal challenge will be rejected. Elections have consequences, and this is a devastating one.”

The Tampa Bay Times editorial board continues, explaining the fiscal implications of the diversion of state dollars out of Florida’s public school budget: “Don’t be fooled  This legislation… does more than take care of 13,000 kids who are on a waiting list for the existing voucher program that is paid for with tax credits. It raises the annual income limit for eligibility from $66,950 for a family of four for the current voucher program to $77,250 for the (new) ‘Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.’ That income limit will rise in future years, and so will the state’s investment in vouchers. Welcome to a new middle class entitlement. Florida cannot afford this free market fantasy. The state ranks near the bottom in spending per student and average pay for teachers. Hillsborough County has hundreds of teacher vacancies, broken air conditioning systems in dozens of schools will take years to repair, and voters just approved a half-cent sales tax to help make ends meet.  Pinellas County would need $1,200 more per student in state funding just to cover inflation over the last decade. Yet Florida will send $130 million to private schools next year for tuition for 18,000 students… Private schools aren’t bound by the same accountability standards and countless other requirements that public schools must meet. Private schools aren’t assigned letter grades by the state. Private schools aren’t required to accept every student who comes in the door, and they can much more easily move out kids who are low performers or disruptive in the classroom.”

Jeb Bush and Patricia Levesque, his long partner in promoting the privatization of public education in Florida, together lead two organizations which have promoted this bill. Patricia Levesque is the Executive Director of Jeb Bush’s national organization ExcelinEd, formerly the Foundation for Excellence in Education; she is also the Executive Director of a Florida organization that promotes school-privatization—the Foundation for Florida’s Future.  Lavesque released the following statement this week after Florida’s legislature sent the new Family Empowerment Scholarship school voucher program to Governor DeSantis for his signature: “The Family Empowerment Scholarship program builds upon two decades of nationally recognized progress in expanding quality educational options for Florida students.  We commend… the many lawmakers who championed this important program…. Their leadership, commitment and courage in continuing Florida’s strong tradition of educational choice will help thousands of families find the best educational fit for their children.”

Jeb Bush serves on the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for Florida’s Future.  Bush is also President and Chairman of the Board of ExcelinEd. Bush also remains significant nationally as a long friend and ally of Betsy DeVos, our current U.S. Secretary of Education.