Bill to simplify school choice scholarship process passes key Florida House committee

Patricia Williams, D-Fort Lauderdale, was one of three Democrats who joined Republicans Wednesday in voting for House Bill 5101.

A bill that would streamline the approval process for K-12 state school choice scholarships got the green light on Wednesday in House Appropriations Committee.

House Bill 5101 passed with little debate, with Democrats Anika Omphroy of Sunrise, Nicholas X. Duran of Miami, and Patricia Williams of Fort Lauderdale joining the Republicans to vote in favor of the bill.

Though the bill deals primarily with virtual learning, it also addresses the issue of cross-checking names of scholarship students to ensure they are not enrolled in district schools. Under the bill, the cross-check would be done after the scholarship money is distributed as opposed to before, which had resulted in payment delays for schools.

The bill also would remove the four deadline dates by which scholarship funding organizations must approve Family Empowerment Scholarship applications and the Florida Department of Education must verify that students are not prohibited from receiving the scholarships. Instead, the Department would transfer scholarship funds once it receives student documentation from the scholarship funding organizations.

A similar bill, Senate Bill 1348, currently is in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. Members of the Senate Education Committee approved it on a 6-3 vote along party lines last month.

The bill, which the committee amended, would make technical fixes to HB 7045, which the Legislature passed last year. That bill, described as the largest expansion of education choice in the nation, extended scholarship eligibility to more Florida students, including children from military families, and folded the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities into the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.

In August, the McKay Scholarship program for students with certain special needs will be merged with the Family Empowerment for Unique Abilities.

SB 1348 addresses challenges that resulted from such a large expansion and smooths the process for families and participating schools. The bill still requires the Florida Department of Education to cross check the list of participating students against public school enrollments. Additionally, it removes a requirement that cross checks be completed before funds are awarded, eliminating a delay in payments to families.

According to a staff analysis, the bill also requires the Department to adjust scholarship payments to school choice scholarship funding organizations; recalculate the state allocation for school districts upon completion of cross checks; and transfer scholarship funds to the scholarship funding organization upon receipt of necessary documentation from the organization to verify the student’s participation.