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Disney tickets, PS5s, and big-screen TVs: Florida parents exploit DeSantis' school vouchers
Florida parents are taking advantage of an expanded school voucher program championed by Governor Ron DeSantis (R), according to messages from private Facebook groups obtained by Popular Information. The private Facebook messages reveal how parents are using the new Personalized Education Program (PEP), which provides about $8,000 annually to thousands of homeschooled students to get taxpayer-funded theme park passes, big-screen TVs, and other items with an attenuated connection to education. PEP is limited to 20,000 students for the 2023-24 academic year but will expand dramatically in future years, increasing by 40,000 students annually.
In one exchange posted in a private Facebook group last month, a parent inquires if anyone has had luck getting passes to Disney World approved through the program. Another parent responds that she was able to get passes for Disney World and Universal Studios paid for with taxpayer funds.
The members of the group then discuss how to characterize unlimited annual and semi-annual passes in order to secure approval.
Voucher funds are available to many more students this academic year as a result of legislation signed by DeSantis last March. DeSantis hailed the new law as "the largest expansion of education choice in the history of these United States." Previously, the voucher program was restricted mostly to low-income families. The money could only be used for private school tuition or transportation to an out-of-district public school. The new law eliminated the income caps and allowed thousands of homeschooled students to receive the approximately $8,000 voucher as an Educational Savings Account, which can be used for any approved expense. (Students who attend private school and have leftover funds can now also spend the money this way.) A small number of these accounts existed prior to the new law, but they were limited to students with special needs.
Florida has delegated the administration of the vouchers to two private non-profit organizations, Step Up for Students and AAA Scholarship Foundation. These non-profits generate revenue based on how many students they can attract. So, they are incentivized to meet the demands of parents who receive vouchers.
As the Tampa Bay Times reported, Step Up for Student's new guide to approved expenses for recipients of PEP vouchers in the 2023-24 academic year authorizes the purchase of theme park tickets. Theme park tickets were previously a prohibited expense, but Step Up for Students' "reconsidered after hearing from parents about the potential benefits."
In another private Facebook message obtained by Popular Information, dated August 9, one parent laments that she has an "old" TV that "could really use replacing." She asks whether she could use voucher funds to replace the TV if she was also buying a "screen and projector." One group member tells her that she can buy a new 55-inch TV while another assures her she can buy "all three" — the new TV, a screen, and a projector — with voucher funds.
The Step Up for Students purchasing guide authorizes the purchase of TVs up to 55 inches. Public schools also purchase televisions but those are used by hundreds or thousands of students. Televisions purchased through the PEP voucher program will only benefit a few students, at most.
In another August 2023 message, a parent sorts through the logistics of using taxpayer funds to buy "an $800 lego set for my kid for Christmas."
Step Up for Students permits all voucher recipients to spend up to $400 annually on Legos.
In a private Facebook message dated June 12, a parent says their PlayStation 3 "isn't doing great," and she needs "to get something new." She asks whether she will be reimbursed for a $500 PlayStation 5 bundle that includes "God of War," even though the game is "not age appropriate" for her 5-year-old daughter.
Step Up for Students authorizes voucher funds to purchase video game consoles, but only for special needs students. Other approved expenses for all homeschooled students this academic year include swing sets, foosball tables, air hockey tables, skateboards, kayaks, standup paddleboards, dolls, and stuffed animals.
Jeanne Allen, founder of the National Center for Education Reform and a proponent of vouchers, defended these kinds of expenditures in an interview. Allen said, "young people today… expect 21st century approaches to learning and recreational opportunities for their physical and mental well-being."
While Florida spends billions on vouchers, the state's public school teachers remain underpaid
The Florida voucher program for homeschooled students is part of a larger and rapidly expanding state voucher program. Doug Tuthill, President of Step Up For Students, posted on August 26 that his organization had already awarded vouchers to 410,000 full-time students.
With an average award of about $8,000, that means Florida is spending over $3.3 billion on these student vouchers. And there are many more students who receive vouchers through AAA Scholarship Foundation. Many students will use their vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Beneficiaries include wealthy families who have sent their children to private schools for years without subsidies.
Holly Bullard, Chief Strategy Officer for the Florida Policy Institute, told Popular Information that the "real scandal" is that, while DeSantis pumps billions into vouchers, Florida teachers are grossly underpaid compared to their counterparts in other states.
According to the National Education Association, Florida K-12 teachers were paid an average of $51,230 during the 2021-22 academic year, which ranked 48th in the nation. The national average was $66,745. Florida also ranks 43rd in the amount spent per public school student. Moreover, many Florida teachers "spend their own money on necessary classroom supplies." According to A Gift for Teachers, a central Florida non-profit that purchases school supplies, "some teachers will spend up to $500 or more."
The underinvestment in Florida public schools is having an impact on teacher recruitment and retention. The Florida Education Association reports that, as the new school year starts, there are "8,000 teachers and 6,000 support staff vacancies across the state." The group describes the situation as "one of the worst teacher shortage situations in the nation."