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Gov. Ron DeSantis Paying Parents in Florida to Take Their Kids to Disney World

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Credit: Becky Burkett/Canva

Thanks to an upgrade to the State of Florida’s school voucher program, Gov. Ron DeSantis is reportedly paying parents to take their kids to Disney World, whether he realizes it or not.

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It’s no secret that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida State Legislature have been at odds with The Walt Disney Company (and vice versa) for over a year. The debacle that began in March 2022 related to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law has only grown, and the State of Florida and Disney are now embroiled in a legal battle that seems to have no end in sight.

The drama and discord between the two parties make it seem all the more strange that several headlines in the news this week suggest the Republican governor and his legislative team are coaxing parents of school-aged children to take their kids to Disney’s Central Florida parks–and on the taxpayers’ dime.

A Very Worthwhile Program

In March 2023, Gov. DeSantis signed an expansion of Florida’s school voucher program. The program was originally designed to help lower-income families pay for expenses related to their children’s education, such as tuition and fees for private schools. The expansion includes $8,000 in vouchers for thousands of Florida families who choose to homeschool their children or to enroll their children in private education settings. It also allows for the setting up of what’s called “education savings accounts,” which allow parents to use the funds on purchases beyond private school tuition.

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The hope was that the additions to the program would translate to greater educational opportunities for school-aged children in the state. Instead, it was discovered that the program’s benefits are being exploited by some parents who are using the funds for things that do not meet the criteria for being defined as educational expenses.

Florida’s education voucher program is administered by two non-profit organizations–Step Up for Students and AAA. Both organizations generate revenue related to the number of students they serve, which gives the organizations an incentive to approve various expenses.

Some Parents See the Program as Simply Extra Money for Anything

According to Judd Legum, a lawyer and political staffer who owns Popular Information, an independent newsletter dedicated to accountability journalism, some Florida parents have been very open about how they are using funds they received from the state government, and many of the “expenses” have nothing to do with the education of their children.

Legum says that in private exchanges on Facebook, many parents have had discussions with other parents about how to use the funds for Disney World tickets or for passes at Universal Studios Orlando Resort.

But the misuse of funds doesn’t stop there, as Legum says some parents have used the funds to purchase items like PS5 game consoles, big-screen televisions, and more.

In a private Facebook message online, the parent of a five-year-old student asks whether reimbursement is possible for the purchase of a PlayStation 5 bundle, which costs approximately $500 and includes the game God of War. Not only is the item a video game console, but the game itself has an ESRB rating of M for Mature and is been deemed inappropriate for anyone under the age of 17 because of the game’s simulation of “intense violence” and “strong language” and for realistic imagery of blood and gore.

In August 2023, one parent used Facebook messaging to discuss using the taxpayer-funded voucher benefits for the purchase of a Lego set for their school-aged child. The cost of the set, which the parent hoped to purchase as a Christmas gift, is around $800.

“Eligible” Education Expenses?

Over the summer, Step Up for Students published a list of approved education expenses, which includes items like musical instruments and equipment, books, field trips, tuition for private schools, and tutoring fees, among other expenses. But the list almost immediately raised some eyebrows.

“If we saw school districts spending money like that, we would be outraged,” said Damaris Allen, the executive director of Families for Strong Public Schools. “We want to be conservative with our tax dollars. We want to be sure it is being used for worthwhile things.”

Allen says that some of the items approved for parents to purchase with voucher dollars are the same items teachers would like to have in their classrooms, but teachers would have to raise funds to purchase them or use their own money in order to have them.

Teachers Left to Fend For Themselves (and Their Students)

In the 2021-2022 academic year in Florida, public school teachers earned an average salary of just over $51,000. The amount lands the Sunshine State in 48th place in the country when it comes to teachers’ salaries, and the amount is significantly lower than the national average of nearly $67,000 annually.

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When Florida teachers need items and supplies for students in their classrooms and the school budget doesn’t allow for it, many of them use their own resources to make the purchases–purchases for which the schools do not reimburse them.

According to ReformAustin.org, the misuse of school voucher program benefits by parents “raises concerns about accountability and the need for stricter oversight” and “underscores the ongoing challenges faced by Florida’s educators who are working tirelessly to provide quality education with limited resources.”

The misuse also begs the question: If Gov. DeSantis knew the funds were being used by some parents to purchase Disney World tickets, would he be motivated to initiate an overhaul of the program? That remains to be seen.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!