Bill to expand vouchers advances amid heated debate
Published: Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 9:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 9:36 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Legislation that would dramatically expand a state program that helps low-income children attend private schools in Florida moved ahead Thursday during an emotional and crowded hearing that pitted supporters of public education against advocates for school vouchers.
The bill would greatly increase the amount of money spent on the state’s tax credit vouchers in the short run, loosen eligibility requirements and allow sales tax money to be diverted to the program for the first time. It is a top priority of Republican leaders and stands a good chance of becoming law, but many Democrats were sharply critical of the legislation Thursday as it passed its first hurdle, the House Finance and Tax Subcommittee, on an 11-7 party-line vote.
The debate centered on the amount of funding that could be shifted from public schools if students flock to private academies, and on the differences in testing and other accountability measures between public and private schools.
Florida has long helped subsidize private school education by allowing corporations to fund scholarships for poor children instead of paying state income taxes. The program allowed nearly 60,000 students to attend private schools this year at a cost of nearly $300 million.
Deeply controversial at first, some of the state’s early voucher initiatives were opposed by both Democrats and Republicans. One voucher program pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush was declared unconstitutional in 2006.
The tax credit scholarships eventually gained acceptance across party lines. Many Democrats who voted against the bill Thursday said they support the vouchers at their current level, but are concerned with how quickly they are growing.
“It’s too much, too fast,” said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach. “It’s a huge increase.”
In 2010 lawmakers embedded an annual automatic funding increase of 25 percent into state law if 90 percent of the previous year’s voucher allocation was used up, but now they want to go further and boost the annual increases by roughly $30 million.
The legislation also makes the scholarships available to more middle-class families, those earning up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level — $62,010 for a family of four — instead of 185 percent. And it opens up a vast new source of revenue in allowing sales tax money to be diverted for vouchers.
“That will hurt our public education because the sales tax dollars” are a key source of funding for public schools, said Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana.
Republicans noted that funding for public education has increased in recent years even as the voucher program expanded, with another boost for public schools proposed in the 2014-15 state budget. They also argued that parents have the right to use their tax dollars for any type of education they desire.
“Shouldn’t the money in some sense follow the child?” asked Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale.
Some of the most heated exchanges came over school accountability standards. Critics of vouchers often point out that private schools are not required to administer the same student exams as public schools, and their teachers do not have to be certified or undergo regular evaluations.
“Private does not equal high quality,” said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee.
The lack of accountability measures in the House bill looks to be a major point of contention. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, also has raised the issue, saying in a speech Tuesday to open the legislative session that “the performance of Tax Credit Scholarship students should be assessed just like the performance of any other child.”
Gov. Rick Scott was evasive on the point Thursday, saying only, “I believe in accountability of anybody that’s receiving public dollars.”
House leaders do not want to put more testing requirements on schools that accept voucher students.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” said Finance and Tax Subcommittee Chairman Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne. He added, “I think the whole concept of making these private schools mimic the public schools would defeat the purpose of giving these parents choice.”
Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said private school families can vote with their feet.
“It’s the ultimate accountability because if the school doesn’t do a good job all of the students will be gone and the school will be out of business,” he said.
Voucher supporters crowded into the committee hearing Thursday. Dozens of students and parents wore yellow shirts that read “expanding equal opportunity.” Some people were kept out because the room’s 241-person occupancy level had been reached; others stood in the back or sat on the floor.
Chanae Jackson-Baker traveled from Ocala to testify, telling lawmakers that her children were not challenged in overcrowded public school classrooms. This year Jackson-Baker used tax credit scholarships to move her two third-grader daughters to a private school and says they have blossomed.
The public school “just wasn’t an environment conducive to learning,” she said.
Paula Jenkins of Lake City enrolled her 13-year-old in a private school recently and said, “It has helped my son so much, the opportunities and one-on-one attention he has got from being in a smaller class setting.”
Yet an estimated 25,000 students were not able to receive a voucher this year because the program ran out of money.