School choice politics could hurt Scott’s reach out on public schoolsby John Kennedy | February 2nd, 2014
After slashing $1.3 billion from schools his first year as governor, Rick Scott has struggled to convince public school advocates that he is on their side by pouring money into classrooms and teacher raises during subsequent years of his term.
Now, as he faces a brutal reelection contest, Scott’s fellow Republican leaders may be reopening old wounds, floating a new proposal to expand a school voucher program that has long antagonized Florida’s biggest teachers’ union and many school boards.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said last week he wants a “massive expansion” of school choice efforts this year, including beefing up the scholarship program that redirects hundreds of millions of potential tax dollars from public budgets into private schools.
The move is giving Democrats and their allies more campaign talking points as they strive to portray Scott and his party as indifferent to public schools and eager to shift tax dollars into private hands.
“We’re definitely concerned about an expansion of this corporate voucher program,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. “The schools that receive state money through this program aren’t accountable.”
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program will spend as much as $286 million 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.
He was joined last week by Senate President Don Gaetz, D-Niceville, in saying that broadening the program will be a priority when the Legislature convenes March 4.
Weatherford offered no specifics. But program supporters say almost 35,000 more students may be interested in drawing scholarships, which could demand an additional $150 million for the program.
“We’re going to do a massive expansion of choice for families,” Weatherford said.
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