Tallahassee, FL – The value of private school vouchers for low income children would go up under a bill that's advancing in the Florida Senate. This year the increase would be small, boosting each voucher by a couple hundred dollars. But James Call reports the proposal includes annual increases that could grow the voucher to at least 55-hundred dollars in three years.
School vouchers, public money that pays for scholarships to private schools, have been a flash point at the Capitol since former Governor Jeb Bush's first term. Mention the idea and lawmakers and lobbyists will arrive armed with ten years worth of data. Debate about what Senator Joe Negron calls a small expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program almost became a battle of academic studies. Senator Ronda Storms responds to a teacher union lobbyist's assertion that there is no proof that the voucher program works.
"So you are telling me you are not familiar with the Harvard study that was conducted for minority students, African-American males, and Mexican-American males that found that in fact they do perform better in public schools than in private schools, even if the majority of their peers are not the minority? Are you unfamiliar with that Harvard study?"
Linda Russell, who has spoken against the proposal, had a homegrown study paid for by the state.
"That is the one the University of Florida did specifically on this program. We've got two years worth of data. The researcher still said that we need several more years of data, but given two years worth of data, he did not believe that the students in this program do significantly, actually, they don't do any better than the students do in our public schools."
The bill before the committee would replace the maximum scholarship of $3950 to 65-percent of what the state spends per student in public school. If the bill were in place today, vouchers would be worth about 150-dollars more. The amount of the maximum scholarship would increase five-percent annually until it reached eighty-percent of the public school per student funding. The money comes from corporations. Instead of paying a tax, they send part of what they owe to the Tax Credit Scholarship program. The proposal adds new revenue sources from oil, gas and alcohol taxes.
Opponents like Latha Krishnaiyer with the statewide PTA says this gives money to private schools that should go to public schools.
"We have opposed this bill before, and we continue to oppose all voucher and tax credit proposals that take public dollars away from public schools. We believe that all public schools should be improved. The money that you are using, this money that goes away from public schools can be used to improve all public schools."
Framing the issue like that got Senator Mike Bennett's attention.
"You are the second or third person this morning who has talked about public money and public schools. There are some of us who believe it is private money that goes to public schools. It is my money, it's not the public's money. Okay? So I believe in private money funding public schools. I believe in private money funding private schools. It's my money. It's not the public's."
Senator Bennett voted for the proposal. Having sat through a decade of debates about vouchers, he said he is convinced a determining factor in a student's success is parental involvement. Bennett said a sign of parental involvement is filling out the application for a voucher to leave a failing public school. Senator Jeremy Ring, who said when first elected he opposed anything with voucher attached to it, also voted yes. Ring said what he learned in visits to schools convinced him to support vouchers.
"I can see that these children are getting an education that they couldn't get in a public school. These parents are reinvigorated. The children are reinvigorated. I didn't see that before I ran for office. But I have had to see that this is real. This works for these children, and they need it."
The measure passed the Finance and Tax Committee with one no vote from Senator Charles Justice. It has five more committee stops before going before the full Senate.