Bush-era school voucher plan poised for expansion in Houseby John Kennedy | March 6th, 2014
A private school voucher program launched under former Gov. Jeb Bush could be dramatically expanded under legislation getting its first review today in a House subcommittee — and facing stiff opposition from Palm Beach and other school districts.
A priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program looms as a sharp political dividing point this election year. Along with another proposal aimed at beefing-up the charter school industry, the push is part of what Weatherford has promised to be a “massive” expansion of school choice options.
The program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits 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.
Legislation going before the House Finance and Taxation subcommittee today would allow sales tax dollars — the state’s prime source of revenue — to be directed into the program by corporations and expand the eligibility pool of students, setting the program on pace to spend $873.6 million by 2018.
Meanwhile, the Step Up for Students, private non-profit which oversees the program, would see its 3 percent take for administrative costs swell from its current $8.6 million this year to $26.2 million when the scholarship program fills out.
While almost 60,000 students received scholarships this year, almost 94,000 applications were begun by families, who Step up for Students says earn on average about $25,000 annually.
Step Up for Students Chairman John Kirtley is close to Weatherford and has called him the “poster child” for school choice, with the speaker having been home-schooled until his first year of high school.
Kirtley also is an adept political player on the Republican side. He chairs the Florida Federation for Children, a political committee that spent almost $1.5 million in the 2012 election season.
That political committee has collected contributions from Charter Schools USA, a Fort Lauderdale-based company that operates dozens of charter schools across Florida, including Renaissance Charter School in West Palm Beach.