Ron DeSantis Signs Bill Expanding School Choice to All Florida Students
The Florida governor has a history of using state power to bully Florida schools over speech he doesn't like. H.B. 1 may accomplish his goal while ceding power to parents.
Last week, Florida's Legislature passed H.B. 1, a bill that would expand the state's school choice program, the Family Empowerment Scholarship, to all Florida students. Today, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law, a welcome change from his usual tendencies toward state authority.
Under current law, students can opt out of their local public school and attend a private or charter school using the state funding that would have otherwise gone to the local school. The program was primarily geared toward children with disabilities or those from low- or middle-income households, with eligibility capped at 375 percent of the poverty-level income. The new law would remove all eligibility caps but still prioritize lower-income students and those in foster care.
Speaking at Christopher Columbus High School, an all-boys Catholic school in Miami-Dade County, DeSantis called the bill a "game changer," saying it "will represent the largest expansion of education choice not only in the history of this state, but in the history of these United States."
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association (FEA), the state's teacher's union, excoriated the bill in a statement. Under H.B. 1, he contended, "average Floridians will be helping pay for millionaires and billionaires to send their kids to elite private schools." Of course, in either case, public schools are funded by tax money; in the absence of H.B. 1, those wealthy households would be paying those taxes plus private school tuition.
Under H.B. 1, participating private schools will still have to abide by certain requirements, like reporting grades to parents and administering certain state-approved standardized tests. But on balance, the bill will allow parents more control over their children's schooling by limiting the state's involvement. And given some of DeSantis' previous policy positions, that result was not a given.
In April 2022, DeSantis signed the Individual Freedom Act into law, more commonly known as the "Stop WOKE Act," which bans both schools and private businesses from endorsing certain ideas associated with critical race theory. At the time, he clearly signaled that the law's intent was to keep "the far-left woke agenda" out of his state's "schools and workplaces," a clear violation of free speech. Last week, a federal appeals court blocked the law from going into effect—and that wasn't the first federal court to do so.
In January, Florida's Department of Education rejected an Advanced Placement class in African American Studies from inclusion in school curriculum. DeSantis later defended the decision by saying, "Education is about the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of ideology or the advancement of a political agenda." Manny Diaz Jr., the state's education commissioner, called the class "woke indoctrination masquerading as education."
But school choice is the perfect method for contending with schools that teach what parents don't like. DeSantis' history may demonstrate a proclivity for using state power to bully people for their speech, but H.B. 1 may actually accomplish his goal while ceding power back to parents.