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Corporate Tax 'Voucher' Expansion Clears House, But Senate Remains Firm On Testing Requirement

The House has moved ahead with its plans to expand the state’s corporate tax scholarship program, over the objections of the Senate. The lower chamber hopes by tying the expansion to another bill and watering it down, the Senate will be more likely to take it up.

Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland)  has already said she has no interest in allowing an expansion of the state’s voucher program to be tied to her bill creating financial accounts for students with severe disabilities. But in the House, both issues are tied together in one proposal, which was approved by the chamber Friday in a mostly party-line 73-43 vote.

The House bill increases the dollar amount of scholarships given to students so they can go to private schools and says families may now earn as much as $57,000 and still qualify for them. It’s a stripped-down version of the original plan that would have steered some state sales tax revenue into Florida’s corporate tax scholarship program.  Even in its scaled-back form, it’s still a target of Democratic opposition. Boca Raton Rep. Irv Slosberg accused the program of literally robbing public schools.

“If parents want to send their children to for-profit, private schools, they already have the option," he said. "So, why should we all have to pay for it? On behalf of all taxpayers, I have to say, go pick someone else’s pocket.” 

The original expansion language proved problematic for many Democrats—even those who have come to support the corporate tax scholarship expansion in recent years. The Senate wanted to mandate scholarship students take the same state exams as those in public schools do, but opposition to that led the Senate sponsor to withdraw that chamber’s version of the bill—harming its chances of passing the Legislature.

But private schools aren’t governed by the same rules as public schools, even if some do receive what would have otherwise been public dollars. The Senate is holding firm on its testing requirement.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) , son of Senate President Don Gaetz, voted in favor of the bill. However, the younger Gaetz took the opportunity to blast his fellow Republican lawmakers who continue to reject the Senate’s call to give private school scholarship students the same tests as those in public school.

“I see teachers who are public school teachers, who believe in school choice," Gaetz said. "And they say to me, ‘Matt, I want to compete against private schools and charter schools, but when you measure me against teachers in those schools, can we at least use the same ruler for measurement?’ I think it’s a fair ask.”

While most of the debate centered on the corporate tax scholarship language, Rep. Ricardo Rangel (D-Kissimmee)  turned his attention to the provision creating a new funding mechanism for some of the most severely disabled students in the state. It sets up individual accounts for those students to help them fund additional services or even pay for private school tuition. Rangel, whose son has special needs, says he believes the additional funding source is good for families:

“If my son is in public school but he’s not getting the therapies he needs," Rangel said. "I can take advantage of this program and get those therapies somewhere else. That is an opportunity for a parent to make sure their child is getting what they need. Frankly, that’s what we should be doing.”  

The House’s approval of the bill sets up a showdown with the Senate.  If the Senate does not amend its version of the disabilities bill to add in the scholarship language, or the two sides can’t reach an agreement, both issues could go down to defeat.

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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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