Voucher bill passes on party-line vote

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida
Published On: Mar 06 2014 08:06:58 PM EST

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

A sweeping overhaul of the state's de facto school-voucher system was approved Thursday by a House subcommittee on a party-line vote, a sign of the friction the proposal could cause as it moves through the Legislature.

The Finance and Tax Subcommittee voted 11-7 to introduce the bill (PCB FTSC 14-02), one of the more-ambitious bills in the joint House-Senate "work plan" that legislative leaders have said will guide the session. The proposal could also prove to be one of the more-contentious pieces of education legislation considered by lawmakers.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has been particularly adamant about expanding the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to low-income students to help cover the costs of private-school tuition. The program is now funded largely by donations from corporations, which then get credit against corporate-income taxes, insurance-premium taxes and similar charges.

Under the bill, retailers would be allowed to divert sales-tax payments to the system. The value of each voucher would increase, and middle-class families would qualify for partial scholarships.

For example, a family of four would be eligible for at least a partial scholarship if it earns up to $62,010 under the bill. Currently, a similar family no longer qualifies for the vouchers once income exceeds $43,568.

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

Supporters say the measure would give parents greater choice in their children's education.

Democrats, though, argue that the plan would draw funding away from public schools. They complained that children in the program were not required to take state-backed tests, though the students do take standardized tests. And opponents said including sales-tax dollars in the program marked a profound change.

"Taxpayers have a right to make choices about the way they spend their money," said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach. " ... If you have a person that is opposed to this program and shops at an entity that supports the program, their money -- their sales tax dollars that they paid from their pocket -- will be used to support a program that they're in opposition to."

Republican countered that the measure would actually save the state money, because the cost of a scholarship would still be less than the per-student funding provided to public schools. And Rep. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican who sponsored the measure, rejected the idea that it was an attack on public education, suggesting that the scholarship program was a part of that system.

"When we're talking about public education, I think we've got the idea a little bit in reverse," he said. "We're talking about educating the kids in the public, not about sustaining public institutions."

And Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, dismissed the idea that state tests and report cards were needed to keep up with the quality of the schools.

"If there wasn't accountability and the education wasn't happening for these kids, these parents wouldn't be making this choice," he said. "There wouldn't be tens of thousands on a waiting list, wanting to have this choice that you will deny them by voting 'no' today."

Requiring students in the program to take state-mandated tests could still be added to the bill. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said he supports the idea.

And it remains to be seen whether Democrats can maintain a united front against the measure. Past voucher bills have drawn bipartisan support.

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