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After Senate Sponsor Withdraws Support, Voucher Expansion Appears Dead

Florida Senate

A planned expansion of the state’s school voucher program has been derailed in the early weeks of the legislative session. What was once billed as a top priority of legislative leaders appears to be going nowhere, to the disappointment of the program’s backers.

Florida’s corporate tax scholarship program gives businesses tax breaks when they help funnel cash to families hoping to offset the cost of private school. Several studies have shown the program has resulted in savings for the state. That’s because Florida spends more on public school students than it gives to families in the form of vouchers. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz had touted what they called a massive expansion of the program as a priority for the legislature this year. But it was derailed late Thursday, when the sponsor of the Senate bill,  Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton), pulled the plug: withdrawing the proposal from consideration. House Speaker Will Weatherford weighed in on Galvano’s decision Thursday.

“Quitting on the thousands of parents and families and children that are waiting to get opportunities of choice for their children is a disappointment," Weatherford said. " But you know, when I was younger, I memorized the Serenity Prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to know the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ I can’t control what happens in the Senate.”

Friday, both Galvano’s Senate and district offices said they couldn’t reach the senator for comment.

Weatherford had backed voucher expansion, which would also have allowed state sales taxes to be used for scholarships. More families would have qualified for the plan, too, as it was set to raise the income limit. But over five years, that would raise the cost of the program to $870 million annually. Tapping into the state’s main source of revenue did not sit well with many Democrats who had come to support the program in recent years.

Senate leaders wanted voucher students in private schools to take the same tests as their public school counterparts: an issue private school administrators note could lead some private schools to drop their participation in the program:

“Depending on what the expectations are for what students are expected to do, it could increase the hurdle for the number of schools that would accept it," said Jason Flom with Tallahassee’s Cornerstone Learning Center.

“Only one-fourth of the students in the schools that participate in the scholarship program are in fact scholarship students," said Step Up For Students Policy Director Jon East. Step Up For students is the non-profit that administers the Corporate Tax Scholarship Program.  

 “So it’s delicate when you ask the other three-fourths of students, ‘Hey, you need to change your tests, or you should change your tests, or in the alternative, maybe the school has to give two different tests.' Logistically, it’s a challenge," East said in explaining potential pitfalls with the testing requirement.

The two chambers could not reach an agreement on the testing provisions, and Senate President Don Gaetz, who also called for the increased accountability measures for voucher students,  says he’s also disappointed by Galvano’s move to withdraw the bill.

“I had hoped we’d be able to do two things at the same time," Gaetz said. "One, to expand the opportunity for low income families to have more choice in education, and at the same time, bring financial and academic accountability to this program...apparently, we’re not going to be able to do that this session, but hope springs eternal.”

The news was greeted with cheers from the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association, which has long opposed vouchers. The bill could be revived through parliamentary procedures, though both sides view that as unlikely.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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