Democrats clamping down on school voucher bill

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida
Published On: Mar 19 2014 08:29:21 AM EDT
Updated On: Mar 19 2014 08:30:40 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

A sweeping expansion of the state's de facto voucher program is headed to the House floor after getting a thumbs up from the only education committee to take up the measure.

The House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee approved the proposal -- a key priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel -- on a party-line, 9-4 vote on Tuesday. The only other panel to consider the bill (HB 7099) was the Finance and Tax Subcommittee, which signed off on the measure on another party-line vote earlier this month.

The two votes indicate that the voucher program will continue to be a partisan issue in the election-year session. House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, issued a statement after the vote applauding Democrats, who frequently are split on the voucher issue, for opposing the bill.

Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, included an expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to low-income students to help cover the costs of private-school tuition, in a joint House-Senate "work plan" featuring the major issues they want taken up during the session.

"Expanding this successful program will help thousands of additional families send their children to the schools that best fit their needs and help them reach their full potential," said Rep. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican who sponsored the bill, in a statement following the vote. "…This bill will provide new opportunities to more Florida families and will empower those parents with the ability to make the best choices for their children."

Under the bill, retailers would be allowed to divert sales-tax payments to the system. The program is now funded largely by donations from corporations, which then get credit against corporate-income taxes, insurance-premium taxes and similar charges.

The value of each voucher would increase, and middle-class families would qualify for partial scholarships. For example, a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year would be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit.

The bill would also increase a cap on the program's fundraising; drop for many students a requirement that middle school or high school students attend public schools for at least one year before qualifying for vouchers; and toughen standards on organizations that provide the scholarships.

The scale of the overhaul prompted even Democrats who said they were sympathetic to the program to vote against it. Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, pointed out that members of his family run schools that accept scholarships from Step Up for Students, the only current provider in the state.

"I'm not against the program, because I've seen the program... I just am totally against us changing the ball game in the middle of it and changing the original intent of what Step Up was supposed to do," Jones said.

The panel defeated an amendment from Jones that would have required students who receive the scholarships to take the same statewide test administered in public schools. While private schools involved in the program are required to do testing, they are not required to use the same assessment used by the Florida Department of Education.

Subcommittee Chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said private schools would be required under Jones' amendment to tailor what they teach in every classroom to make sure those in the program can pass the test.

"What you're asking for in this amendment is to change the curriculum for 500 students because of two or three students," he said.

But Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said he supports giving the same test to students who receive the scholarship, meaning the idea could be revived later.

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