November 2, 2023

Statement from FPI on Special Session Bill Lifting Voucher Cap for Unique Abilities Scholarships

The Florida Legislature today introduced legislation (SB 4C/HB 3C) that would lift the growth cap on the number of Family Empowerment Scholarships for students with Unique Abilities (UA) vouchers, which currently can only increase annually by 3% of all students with disabilities.

The growth cap for fiscal year (FY) 2023-24, the current year, is set at approximately 40,000. Students who fall into special categories, including children in foster care, children of law enforcement officers and other groups, are able to be funded outside the cap with no restriction.

According to information Florida Policy Institute (FPI) received via email from Step Up for Students (SUFS), a nonprofit overseeing the distribution of the vast majority of vouchers, the organization has so far this school year awarded about 85,000 UA student scholarship vouchers — 82,000 of these have been funded — with about 8,200 students currently on the waitlist. The email also indicated that 61,000 UA scholarships had been funded last year.

In light of the information above and in advance of next week’s special session, FPI released statement below.

The proposed measure, SB 4C/HB 3C, would increase the number of students receiving UA scholarships, but neither the Florida House nor the Senate has assigned a dollar amount to how much this would cost Florida taxpayers. There is $350 million in ‘back of the bill’ funding in the current-year budget for cost overruns for all vouchers -– this is the funding lawmakers propose using to pay for lifting the UA cap. What happens if the UA cap is lifted and costs for the other voucher programs, Educational Options and Personalized Education Plan vouchers for home-schoolers, exceed the amount lawmakers have allocated for cost overruns?

Florida taxpayers deserve transparency from lawmakers and the Florida Department of Education. While funding for K-12 public schools faces constant scrutiny, voucher costs have been allowed to skyrocket with insufficient oversight or accountability.

The number of UA scholarships being funded by SUFS has already increased significantly, by roughly 34 percent from 2022-23 to 2023-24 — and the year is not over — with thousands more currently on a waitlist, as shared by SUFS. Meanwhile, the Department of Education has not addressed consistent reports in the media indicating that there are considerable delays in payments for UA vouchers.

Passing this bill without answering these fundamental questions about cost, fiscal impact, and payment delays would be imprudent and irresponsible. Just as we did on Sept. 13 alongside 30 other groups in a letter to Commissioner Manny Diaz, we strongly urge lawmakers to share publicly how much of the funding appropriated for universal vouchers has been spent and from what sources, and to greatly increase program transparency.

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