Private school voucher bill scaled back again to woo Senateby John Kennedy | April 9th, 2014
A measure beefing-up the state’s private school voucher program launched under former Gov. Jeb Bush was reworked again Wednesday by the House in a bid to reach accord with a resistent Senate.
The legislation (HB 7167) was amended by House sponsor Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, to eliminate a proposed expansion of the dollar caps that limit the growth of the program.
The bill now maintains the current caps that allow annual 25 percent increases from the current $286 million in tax credits, which pays for almost 60,000 low-income students to attend 1,400, mostly faith-based private schools.
Facing earlier opposition, Diaz has already dropped an initial plan to allow companies to steer a portion of their state sales-tax obligation to the program.
The Tax Credit Scholarship Program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to finance private school scholarships for children from low-income households.
While scaled-back, the House proposal does continue to expand the pool of students who could be eligible for taxpayer scholarships. House Republicans also beat back Democratic efforts to require that these private-school students undergo standardized testing like that in public schools.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said he won’t go along with any expansion for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program without a testing provision — and his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, broke party ranks to join Democrats in those losing votes on the House floor.
The younger Gaetz’s stand may signal that the bill still faces a stern test in the Senate, which earlier dropped any plans to consider an expansion bill unless mandatory testing was included.
Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, defended maintaining a distinction between the taxpayer-funded private school students and those who go to public schools.
“Why would we want to make it look just like the school that didn’t work for these children?” Adkins said.
While close to 60,000 students received scholarships this year, demand is much greater, with almost 94,000 applications made by families, according to Step Up for Students, the Tampa-based nonprofit which administers the program.
The nonprofit also says scholarship students are subject to testing, with most taking Stanford Achievement tests at private schools.
Step Up for Students, this year can collect 3 percent for administrative costs, or $8.6 million. And with the program on pace to spend $873.6 million by 2018, Step Up for Students would be poised to collect $26.2 million that year for office costs and salaries – an amount ridiculed Wednesday by Democrats.