A proposal to expand the state’s so-called school voucher program has been revived in the Senate. The move comes in the waning weeks of the legislative session but doesn’t quite match with what the House wants.
The Senate version of the voucher expansion removes the requirement students attend public school before becoming eligible for the program. It would also open the program up to foster children. But it stops short of raising the income eligibility levels for families to qualify. The version in the House would have opened the program up to families in the lower-middle class income range of about $60,000. Sen. Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) says his plan will add more accountability to the groups that administer the program, called scholarship funding organizations or SFO’s. There are now three of them, including longtime administrator, Step Up For Students.
“It prohibits eligible contribution and application fees from being used fro lobbying or political activity or related expenses," Galvano says. "It strengthens accountability for SFO’s by increasing audit requirements, requiring the auditor general to conduct annual operational audits of SFO’s.”
Galvano also wants to give the state auditor general the ability to review the programs and mandate background checks for owners and operators. But Democrats like Tampa Senator Arthenia Joyner expressed doubts about Galvano’s amendment.
“Senator Galvano’s amendment causes me some heartburn," she says.
Joyner has opposed school vouchers the entire time she’s been in the legislature. But what bothers her most about the amendment, she says, is that this is the first time the corporate tax language has come up in the Senate:
“The one thing that has happened as a result of this amendment is that We have minimized the input from subcommittees and the public, because they’ve had the opportunity to come up here today, but this is new.”
Galvano’s original corporate tax scholarship bill did not get a hearing because he pulled it early on in the session over disagreements with the house about whether private school students who receive vouchers should take the same exams as public school students. That was a want by Senate President Don Gaetz. The testing language is still not included in the voucher language that has now been added on to the a bill creating new education funding accounts for students with disabilities.
Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee)—head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents—says he’s still concerned there aren’t enough accountability measures in the program to compare public school kids to those in private schools using vouchers.
“What really concerns me is there’s not enough accountability for the tax dollars that are being spent. That gives me great pause and great concern," he says.
While Galvano’s amendment places more requirements on the groups administering the corporate tax scholarship program—it does not extend to private schools that accept those dollars. Private schools remain exempt from state tests and standards.
The approval of the disability scholarship bill along with the corporate tax language puts the proposal before the full Senate. If approved it will have to be reconciled with the House version of the bill. That would increase the number of kids who can qualify for the vouchers, by raising the income eligibility of applicants. That provision is absent from the Senate.