Senate withdraws voucher bill, expansion plan looks deadby John Kennedy | March 20th, 2014
After promising a “massive expansion” of school choice options this session, House Speaker Will Weatherford retooled his rhetoric Thursday after the Senate dropped plans to take up a proposed build-up of the state’s private school voucher program.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he was withdrawing his version (SB 1620) of the voucher bill advancing in the House. At least part of the dispute is rooted in Senate President Don Gaetz’s demand that students taking part in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program undergo testing in private schools similar to that in public schools.
“It’s a shame. A terrible shame,” Weatherford said. “Thousands of children seeking more opportunities for a better life will be denied. I cannot see any reason why we’d quit on these kids.”
The bill (HB 7099) sailing through the House would make the scholarship program eligible for sales tax money for the first time in its 12-year history. With the new cash, the 60,000 students now getting private-school scholarships could double in four years, rivaling the size of larger public school districts in Florida.
While Republicans are rallying around the expansion, the proposal also drew fierce critics, including the Palm Beach County School Board and most other districts. The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, took a measure of credit for killing the legislation, saying it maintained pressure on lawmakers.
“Public education stakeholders descended on Tallahassee en masse this week to protest this dramatic expansion of the state’s private and religious school voucher program,” said FEA Vice President Joanne McCall. “Our members and voters throughout the state sent thousands of letters to legislators this week.”
The Palm Beach Post also reported that there was rising criticism of what the legislation would mean to the politically connected nonprofit that oversees the scholarship program, created under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Step Up for Students could more than triple the amount of money it collects under the voucher legislation. The 3 percent fee it collects now brings in $8.6 million but could more than triple to $26.2 million when the program reached its full capacity envisioned under the legislation.
“It is a very difficult task to quickly remake the academic accountability for this program, especially in this environment,” said John Kirtley, chairman of Step Up for Students. “We appreciate the efforts of Speaker Weatherford, President Gaetz, Senator Galvano and Rep. Diaz to try work this out.
The program can spend as much as $286 million this year to send 59,674 mostly black and Hispanic low-income students to more than 1,400 private schools across the state, three-fourths of them faith-based.
The program gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to finance the private school scholarships. The legislation sets the program on pace to spend $873.6 million by 2018, when about 120,000 students were expected to be in private schools on taxpayer money.