House agrees to add more cash to corp tax vouchers for schoolsby John Kennedy | March 7th, 2012
Following a partisan skirmish, the Republican-ruled House agreed Wednesday to expand the state’s corporate tax credit scholarship program, with Democrats decrying the move for pulling dollars from the state treasury which could go to public schools.
Businesses get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donating to the program, which began in 2001 as a centerpiece of then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s push toward giving parents private school options to leave troubled public schools.
The program began by setting aside $50 million for tax credits. But the measure approved Wednesday would expand the amount available for credits to $229 million next year.
Legislation approved two years ago set in motion a sliding scale that would allow the cap to climb to $219 this year. But Democrats fiercely fought the proposed increase, which still needs to clear the Senate.
“This bill is about private schools,” said Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston. “Please don’t take any more money out of public schools.”
The tax credit increase comes as lawmakers set aside an additional $1 billion increase in public school spending. But critics have cautioned that the boost fails to cover the $1.3 billion reduction in school spending approved last year by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature.
Last year’s cut brought per-pupil spending to its lowest level in six years.
But the House sponsor of the measure (CS/HB 859), Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey, said the tax money helps students leave “failing schools.” He rattled off state Education Department statistics that suggest student performance improves when they move to private schools.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the scholarship money is a ”lifesaver” to low-income students and their families. He also lashed out at Democratic opponents.
“These kids are stuck. Condemned. And you wouldn’t even send them a lifesaver?” Baxley said.
As of November 2011, there were 1,181 schools participating in the program and scholarships were awarded to 37,578 students, records show. The scholarship amount per-student is about two-thirds what the state spends on public school students.
The corporate tax program has long proved controversial. The Palm Beach Post reported in the program’s early years that questionable organizations and storefront schools were getting scholarship money, prompting state officials to more closely monitor participating schools and collect more data on how they were using those dollars.
Students in private schools are exempt from such public school testing programs as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). But the measure authorizes participating schools to administer state assessment tests, ordering public school districts to provide the material and whatever support the private schools need.