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Bill Creating New Voucher Program Clears Senate Education Committee

Ryan Dailey

The omnibus education bill aiming to create another state scholarship program got a green light from the Senate Education Committee. The measure, SB 7070, got by on a party-line vote.

Senate Republicans rolled out their education package just two weeks ago. And on Wednesday, 60 speakers filled out cards to offer comment on a potential new scholarship program. Senate Education Chair Manny Diaz says it would help more low income students enroll in private schools.

“The bill includes the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which is provided for student that meet eligibility with a means test of up to 260 percent above poverty,” Diaz said.

The federal poverty level for a family of four is $31,000 per year. A family of four with income up to $65,260 would be eligible. The scholarship would be capped at 15,000 recipients to start. Diaz says he backs the measure in an attempt to find “complete balance” in giving students opportunity.

“Our system of education is being overwhelmed as we speak by the number of people that come to the state every day,” Diaz said. “And within 10 years, I believe our entire education system will not be able to keep up.”

The bill is also aimed at reducing the wait list for the existing Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which gives businesses tax incentives in exchange for donations. One way it intends to do that, according to Diaz, is pulling unused funds from the state’s Hope Scholarship, meant to help bullied students attend private schools.

“Because the Hope Scholarship has had a slow ramp-up, what we are doing – our funds that are collected outside the Treasury, or through that tax, are being funneled to help relieve the waiting list on FTC,” Diaz said, “because we believe those funds should be implemented immediately to help students and parents who are trying to get their kid to a school of their choice.”

The scholarship would be funded using the Florida Education Finance Program, the main funding mechanism for public schools – a main reason why Democratic Senator Bill Montford won’t back it.

“Even though there are good pieces in other parts of the bill, I simply can’t support that,” Montford said following the Wednesday’s meeting. “When we take dollars out of the FEFP, which is the funding formula for schools, that’s going to have a detrimental impact on traditional schools.”

Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
Members of the Florida Senate Education Committee were split along party line on support of SB 7070, which would create a new state scholarship program.

While Democrats oppose the scholarship program, they like another part of the bill that creates the Community Schools Grant program. It’s intended to foster more of what legislators characterize as “neighborhood public schools with unique community needs.” The schools would provide wrap-around services including healthcare and counseling.

The proposal also eases some of the requirements of teacher certification tests, like re-take fees, and would provide three years for teachers to pass the general knowledge exam rather than one.

Senator Lori Berman says she wants the scholarship as a separate bill.

“I agree that this is very much a train, and we put a lot of carrots in the bill – but one thing I find particularly difficult to deal with and that’s the Family Empowerment Scholarship program,” Berman said.

Tasha Dunn of Seminole County says she supports it because her two children benefit from another state scholarship.

“I moved to Seminole County Florida just for the ‘A plus’ schools. But unfortunately my daughter was labeled as a nuisance and disruptive, and my son was actually bullied,” Dunn told committee members. “Being frustrated with the school system at the time and unable to afford private school, I thought I had no other choice. But I was able to get the best help due to the scholarship.”

And Catherine Baer with public education advocacy group Common Ground says there is precedent for Floridians to be against scholarships like the one Republicans are proposing.

“We reject the combining of a massive voucher expansion that will use public dollars within the FEFP to pay for private religious education,” Baer said. “The very thing that was defeated in Bush v. Holmes and at the ballot box in 2012.”

The education bill also looks to modify the existing Best and Brightest bonus structure to add bonuses geared toward recruitment and retention in certain teaching subjects.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.