Updated: Voucher Expansion Bill Goes To Scott After Last-Minute Haggling

May 2, 2014

Step Up For Students is Florida's oldest corporate tax scholarship funding organization
Credit StepUpForStudents.org

Update: 9:40 p.m: The Florida House and Senate have approved an expansion of the state's corporate tax scholarship "voucher" program and are sending the bill to Governor Rick Scott. The Senate approved its version of the bill early Friday sending it to the House--where lawmakers delayed in passing the bill over concerns it takes away the special diploma option for disabled students.

Ultimately, the house approved the bill as written by the Senate. The bill makes foster care children eligible for the scholarships and requires a Florida State University research institute to track how well voucher/scholarship students fare against their public school counterparts.

The bill marks a victory for House Speaker Will Weatherford who made the expansion a priority. Approval of the program comes after another Weatherford-backed priority bill--a revamp of the state's retirement system--failed.

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*Editor's Note: This story reflects the information available at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 2.  Story will be updated after the legislature adjourns.

More families would be eligible for scholarships to send their children to private school, and more students would have access to regular diplomas.  The Florida House and Senate are in the process of forging a last-minute deal that could send the issue to Governor Rick Scott, and salvage the remains of a more controversial expansion of the school voucher program that didn’t fly with Senators.

The original plan for the state’s corporate tax scholarship program increased income eligibility and tried to tap into the state’s  sales tax revenue, to steer more money into the program. The Senate wanted to make voucher students in private schools take the same exams as those in public schools, but conversation on the issues collapsed early on. Friday, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who initially sponsored the Senate-version of the voucher bill, brought a far smaller proposal to the chamber.

“I can tell you getting to this point, leading up through the final days to this, the last day, there’s been intense negotiation," Galvano said.

The revamped bill puts greater rules on scholarship organizations by having the state conduct audits and perform more thorough background checks on owners. It would also require application fees to be refunded to families who can’t find schools and puts more restrictions on how those fees are used by the organizations:

“This amendment would prohibit eligible contributions and application fees from being used for lobbying or political contributions. Let me tell you, that was a big step and a hard provision for many to swallow," he said.

The rebirth of the voucher issue on the last day of session in the Senate caught some lawmakers by surprise and caused others to hedge, especially after Senate Democrats blocked the language from being added onto another bill a day prior.  Also driving the concern is the voucher’s placement onto another, more favorable piece of legislation that would grant some students with disabilities extra funds. It would also allow disabled children to qualify for a traditional diploma, rather than a special diploma which isn’t recognized by colleges, universities or vocational schools. The issue is deeply personal to several Senator, including Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner--whose Son Andy has Down Syndrome. Gardiner urged his fellow lawmakers to vote for the whole bill:

“I felt very strongly that the special diploma did not provide a child with a disabilities with a real career path. Senator Thrasher and I last year changed the IEP process to empower the parents, and we’ve seen a sea change," Gardiner explained. "That was Phase One. This is Phase Two. And if I’m honored to be a part of the chamber the next few years, there will be a Phase Three and a Phase Four.” 

The House had already combined both issues into one piece of legislation and passed a similar version of the measure before the Senate vote. Most of the Senate agreed with the special accounts for disabled students, but the voucher language—despite the increased safeguards outlined by Galvano, still didn’t set well with many. Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami,  caused an uproar in the Senate when he suggested some lawmakers in the House were offered jobs  in exchange for votes.

“We’ve had individuals from that organization going around these halls, offering jobs to other people in the process as incentive for voting for this bill. That’s not the way we should be doing business. But it’s happened," Bullard charged, prompting a frosty response from Senate President Don Gaetz.

“Senator, you’re an officer of the state of Florida. You took an oath to preserve and protect the laws of this state. If you have knowledge of a crime, or an attempt to commit a crime, sir, you need to report that to the state attorney today," Gaetz said.

Bullard has not named who he was referring to.