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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
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School voucher expansion might be dead for the year


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TALLAHASSEE — A top priority for legislative leaders took a hit Thursday, just days after the controversial measure passed its final House committee before heading to the floor.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, pulled SB 1620, which would have expanded the state’s tax credit scholarship program, from further consideration. The decision puts the future expansion on shaky grounds, despite being fast-tracked in the House.

“The bill has been withdrawn. It’s continuing to move in the House, so I guess the issue is still in play in that regard,” he said. “On this side, we had a bill we were trying to formulate and get in the right posture ... Not having a comfort level on the framework for the accountability piece, we’ve withdrawn it from further consideration.”

The proposal would have expanded the state’s so-called voucher program by removing some eligibility requirements, offering partial scholarships and increasing the amount of money available to the program.

Galvano’s decision means it’s unlikely that state lawmakers will expand the program during the 2014 legislative session.

“You can never say the Senate will take up a House bill or that the House won’t take up a Senate bill,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “But when the sponsor of the bill asks to have the bill withdrawn from further consideration from the Senate, that’s an indication that the sponsor has changed his mind about the prospects of the bill.”

The expansion of the program was one of the top priorities for Gaetz and Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. In fact, the No. 1 priority for the joint House and Senate work plan, “economic opportunity through education,” included expanding education choices for families in poverty.

“Frankly, I’m disappointed,” Gaetz said. “I had hoped we would do two things at the same time — expand the opportunity for low-income families to have more choice in education and at the same time, bring financial and academic accountability to this program, the tax credit scholarship program. Apparently we’re not going to be able to do that this session, but hope springs eternal.”

The measure isn’t completely dead. HB 7099, sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, passed the House Choice and Innovation subcommittee 9-4 along party lines Tuesday, paving the way for a vote in the House.

Diaz said he “spoke to the speaker personally and we’re not giving up.”

Weatherford echoed those comments Thursday, saying “nothing is dead in week three” of the legislative session.

The voucher program, which provides scholarships to eligible low-income students for private school tuition, is paid for mostly by donations from corporations that then receive credit against corporate income taxes, insurance premium taxes and similar charges.

Nearly 60,000 students from low-income families attend private schools this year as a result of the program. The number has been on the rise every year since the 2008-09 school year, and supporters of the program point toward enrollment numbers as a reason to expand.

Opponents, however, say the expansion is too far-reaching, in part because it removes a requirement that students must attend public school for a year before being eligible for the scholarship program.

The House proposal is also missing a component that would require students who receive vouchers to take the same standardized tests as students in public schools.

Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau reporters Matt Dixon and Jim Rosica contributed to this report.

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