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Monday, Jul 28, 2014
Politics

Lawmakers OK 11th-hour expansion of school vouchers


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TALLAHASSEE — Little more than 12 hours after it was left for dead, an expansion of eligibility for the state’s de facto school-voucher system was revived on the floor of the Senate, then quickly passed the Legislature on the session’s final day.

The second life for the bill marked a major victory for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who had pushed for an even more sweeping overhaul of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program provides tax breaks to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that pay for children to go to private schools.

Under the bill approved by the Legislature, a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year would be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit. The value of each individual scholarship would also rise.

In a concession to Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the bill would also change how the state measures the learning of students in the voucher program. But those students would not be required to take the state test developed for public schools — something that was a non-starter for voucher supporters, who said it would dictate curriculum to private schools.

The voucher program is administered by the nonprofit organization Step Up For Students of Tampa.

The new voucher provisions, as well as a measure meant to help parents of students with disabilities pay for educational services, were attached to a unrelated education bill (SB 850) dealing with middle school and career education.

The House approved the measure 70-44 late Friday, hours after the Senate passed it on a 29-11 vote. Both votes were largely though not entirely, along party lines.

Republicans painted the bill as a continuation of a school-choice agenda that has thrived in recent years under GOP control.

“This is just the next step, the next step in empowering parents,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

But Democrats, particularly those who had supported the original bill, ripped the move to combine the measures.

“I have to vote against all of that work because we polluted it with a flawed expansion of private-school vouchers that provide no accountability, no ability to measure a student’s success and no way to compare those students to their public-school counterparts,” said Rep. Carl Zimmermann, D-Palm Harbor.

Others said the legislation didn’t address the problems that still face public schools and prompt some parents and students to consider vouchers.

“To say that we want to move them to a private school because they’re frustrated with the conditions in the public school to me just seems like an end-run around what we really should be doing, which is properly funding our public school program,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

The voucher expansion proved to be one of the more contentious education issues of the legislative session, largely uniting a Democratic caucus that often fractures over the scholarship program. The expansion also showed itself to be one of the most resilient ideas of the session, being left for dead by many Capitol observers at least twice before Friday’s breakthrough.

In March, the Senate abruptly shelved its version of the voucher bill, prompting the House to tack it onto the bill concerning students with disabilities. When the Senate tried Thursday to bring that bill to the floor, Senate Democrats used a procedural maneuver to block it.

But when Senate Republicans decided to add the bill onto the education measure Friday, there was no way for opponents to stop it, and the bill now only needs Gov. Rick Scott’s signature to become law.

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