Bush-era voucher program could gain more cash with sales tax jolt, Weatherford saysby John Kennedy | February 6th, 2014
Already calling for a “massive expansion” of school choice, House Speaker Will Weatherford shed more light Thursday on his plans for beefing-up the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program, a controversial voucher program begun under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
As much as $286 million will be spent this year to send 59,674 low-income students, mostly black or Hispanic, to more than 1,400 private schools across the state, three-fourths of them faith-based.
The program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for donations they make to a private, non-profit group, which then passes the money to low-income parents for private school tuition.
Under legislation sponsored by Weatherford in 2010, the program’s funding was allowed to grow annually and will reach $357.8 million in scholarship money next year.
But Weatherford doesn’t think that’s enough.
“One of the components will be the revenue streams that come into the program,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said of this year’s proposal.
He added, “We’re looking at adding sales tax as a component, which would allow for a revenue stream that would let it grow into the forseeable future.”
Allowing companies to direct their state sales tax revenues to the program could prove a major boost. The program originally gave companies credits only for the corporate income tax obligations, but now applies to income, insurance premium, alcoholic beverage, excise and other state taxes.
Adding sales tax represents a redirection of the state’s biggest single tax source. But Weatherford said he didn’t think that would kick the door open for unlimited funding of private scholarships.
“I don’t think you’ll see a massive jump in the cap,” Weatherford said.
The program is opposed by the Florida Education Association and many school boards, including Palm Beach County, which say it directs tax dollars that should go to public schools into private schools and the companies that run them.
The program has flourished under the direction of Tampa equity fund manager John Kirtley, chairman of Step Up for Students, the non-profit that administers the scholarships.
Step Up for Students receives 3 percent of the program’s money – about $8.6 million this year — for administrative costs, including salaries and office space.
The program’s defenders say it doesn’t drain public school dollars. Instead, they say it saves state money because the scholarships are less than the normal cost of sending kids to public schools.
Step Up for Students says almost 35,000 more students may be interested in drawing scholarships, which could demand an additional $150 million for the program. But Weatherford said Thursday he doesn’t have a dollar amount in mind.
“There’s a finite demand,” he said. “There’s not a million kids that are going to participate in the program.”