DeSantis Signs Florida’s Universal School Choice Bill

Dan M. Berger
By Dan M. Berger
March 28, 2023US News
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Proclaiming Florida the best state for choice in education, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Florida’s universal school choice bill into law on March 27, giving every family educational options as “the money follows the child.”

“Florida is number one when it comes to education freedom and education choice, and today’s bill signing represents the largest expansion of education choice in the history of these United States,” DeSantis said in the signing ceremony at Christopher Columbus High School, a Catholic high school, in Miami.

“When you combine private scholarships, charter schools and district choice programs, Florida already has 1.3 million students attending a school of their choosing,” he said, standing at a podium bearing an “Education Freedom” poster. “These programs have been instrumental in elevating school achievements over the past twenty years.”

DeSantis said that the 1.3 million students in Florida already using school choice is larger than the entire K-12 enrollment in 35 other states.

NTD Photo
Aimee Uriarte speaks at a bill-signing ceremony in Miami, Fla. on March 27, 2023. (Courtesy of the Office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis)

School choice lifts school performance by forcing schools to compete, DeSantis said. “Our charter schools perform better because they have to compete for individual students. They’re not entitled to anybody at a charter school.”

DeSantis signed the bill, which passed the state House on March 17 and the Senate on March 23. It goes into effect on July 1.

According to the governor’s office, the bill eliminates current financial eligibility restrictions and allows any student eligible for grades K through 12 to participate. It continues to prioritize low and moderate-income families, those below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, and establishes a second tier of priority for families earning between 185 and 400 percent of the poverty line.

It addresses high demand and wait lists for its Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities by speeding up how many new scholarships are offered each year. It lifts enrollment caps for new students, allowing 20,000 next school year and 40,000 each year after that until 2027.

It requires the Department of Education to develop an online portal that will help parents to choose the best educational options for their children. It eliminates the requirement that students complete at least one credit virtually to graduate.

The bill also “removes red tape and bureaucracy” for those wanting to be teachers, the governor’s office said, making teaching certificates valid longer and allowing those with good work ratings and at least three years of classroom experience to skip the general knowledge requirement they otherwise must fulfill.

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At the signing of a school choice bill in Miami, Fla., on March 27, 2023, state Sen. Corey Simon talks of how his mother worked hard to get him into a better school. (Courtesy of the Office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis)

Sen. Corey Simon, a Republican who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said he has filed 25 bills this year. But this one means the most to him for personal reasons. The neighborhood he grew up in “on the other side of Dixie Highway” in Pompano Beach “didn’t have a lot of success stories,” he said.

His mother, a Publix Supermarket employee for 35 years, “didn’t want her son to deal with the same obstacles that she saw right outside of her front door,” Simon said. “And so she utilized her work address so that I could go to a better school.”

“When I got into the Senate, when I was running for this position, that’s the story that I told. That’s the life that I’ve lived. That’s the passion that I approached this bill with. Because I understood that I wouldn’t be standing here today in this position without the sacrifice that my mother made. And I wanted to ensure that every family had that same opportunity, to make the choice that was best for their children.”

Hera Varmah spoke of how the state’s scholarships had helped her poor immigrant family. She said she is one of 12 children born to immigrants from Jamaica and Liberia. Two are now engineers, and one is in medical school. She graduated from Tampa Catholic High School and Florida A&M University and now works for the American Federation of Children. Four of her other siblings are in college, three are in high school, and one is in middle school.

“My parents would stop at nothing to give us the best education possible,” Varmah said. “They also believe that school values should align with their children’s and with theirs.”

NTD Photo
Hera Verman, one of 12 children in an immigrant family, speaks at a bill-signing ceremony in Miami, Fla., on March 27, 2023, about about how scholarships enabled her entire family to achieve and excel academically. (Courtesy of the Office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis)

“When people say school choice doesn’t work, I simply show them my family. This is the power of giving a child an education that fits their needs,” Varmah said.

Aimee Uriarte, a single mother, said she moved from Costa Rica back to the United States three years ago partly because of her older son Sebastian’s opportunity to go to Christopher Columbus on a scholarship. She said he is a straight-A student and active on the school’s television network. His younger brother Alejandro has ADD and had academic trouble during the pandemic, but a scholarship sent him to Christopher Columbus with his brother. Like his brother, he’s won an award for his work in the school’s journalism program.

“Education choice scholarships have been a huge blessing to my family,” Uriarte said. “Governor, you have this mother’s eternal gratitude for allowing my boys’ future to be promising in a school like Columbus,” Uriarte, who choked up as she was speaking, said before giving DeSantis a big hug.

Rachel Haydon Sabbah said she was the mother of four daughters in Fort Lauderdale who attend the Jewish Cooperative School, an Orthodox school. Two qualify for Family Empowerment Scholarships, enabling her to homeschool one and get therapy for the other. She had previously been waitlisted for the treatment.

“The legislation will cause the unique abilities waitlist to vanish and allow nearly 10,000 special needs families to get the funding that they need,” she said.

From The Epoch Times

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