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New law expands school choice to 'every family in Florida'

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs HB1 into law during ceremony at Miami's Columbus High

Surrounded by students from Christopher Columbus High School and St. Brendan Elementary next door, as well as state and local officials, Gov. Ron DeSantis signs into law HB1, which according to the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops will expand educational choice "to every family in Florida." The signing ceremony took place March 27, 2023 at Miami's Columbus High. Archdiocesan Schools Superintendent Jim Rigg can be seen at rear, sixth from left.

Photographer: MARLENE QUARONI | FC

Surrounded by students from Christopher Columbus High School and St. Brendan Elementary next door, as well as state and local officials, Gov. Ron DeSantis signs into law HB1, which according to the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops will expand educational choice "to every family in Florida." The signing ceremony took place March 27, 2023 at Miami's Columbus High. Archdiocesan Schools Superintendent Jim Rigg can be seen at rear, sixth from left.

MIAMI | Surrounded by local students, and with Miami’s Catholic schools Superintendent Jim Rigg looking on, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill backed by Florida’s bishops that will expand “educational choice to every family in Florida.”

The signing ceremony took place March 27, 2023, at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami.

The bill, HB1, and its Senate companion, SB202, expands access to state scholarship programs for all students regardless of income, be they homeschooled or enrolled in private or religious schools. Scholarships will no longer be based solely on income, disability, or special status.

Commonly known as Step Up – for the largest of the non-profits that administer them, Step Up for Students – the various scholarship programs will now become educational savings accounts (ESAs), available to any student who is a Florida resident and eligible to enroll in K-12 in a public school.

Families could use the ESA for tuition and fees at a private school, transportation to a public school, instructional materials, part-time tutoring services, programs offered by postsecondary institutions, apprenticeship programs and virtual programs and courses.

Funding will be provided by the state on a per-pupil basis – that is, the funds the state provides for each student enrolled in a public school. If a student leaves to attend a private school, the funds will follow the student.

The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops – the agency that speaks for the Church in matters of public policy – noted that the state funding allocation is only a portion of the total public-school funding.

“If a student disenrolls from a public school, it does not lose any of its local funding or supplementary state funding that is not tied to enrollment,” the conference explained.

According to the bishops’ conference, the new law also significantly increases access to larger scholarships for students with disabilities by increasing the enrollment cap.

“Catholic schools look forward to working with the Florida Department of Education and scholarship funding organizations to implement the provisions of this historic law that will transform K-12 education in Florida,” said Michael Sheedy, FCCB executive director. “This marks the accomplishment of a long-standing goal of so many stakeholders to bring educational choice to every family in Florida.”

According to the conference, 200,000 students are currently enrolled in Florida scholarship programs that are income-based or based on special need, including around 41,500 in Catholic schools throughout the state. The various scholarships include: the Florida Tax Credit scholarship (FTC); the Family Empowerment scholarship (FES-EO); the Hope scholarship; the McKay and Gardiner scholarship (FES-UA); VPK (Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten); and School Readiness.

In the Archdiocese of Miami, the number is around 12,000, with 59 of 67 Catholic schools here participating in at least one of the programs.

“I know HB1 will provide important and lasting value for our Catholic school families,” said Rigg, the archdiocesan schools superintendent, in his March 23 newsletter to school principals.

He added, after attending the signing ceremony, that “it was gratifying to hear Governor DeSantis and other lawmakers speak so positively about our Catholic schools,” and predicted “the signing of this bill will spur even more interest in our Catholic schools.”