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State News

Senate Rejects Amendment To Voucher Expansion Bill That Would Have Mandated Data Reporting

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Phil Sears
/
AP Photo

A bill that would expand eligibility for two of the state’s major school voucher programs is still in play, with just a day to go for Florida lawmakers to hear bills. On Thursday, the Senate has rejected an amendment that sparked heated debate.

The House bill (HB 7067) looks to increase the number of people who can qualify for the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship program, and its Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Both give vouchers to low and middle-income families to send their kids to private schools.

The Senate rejected an amendment that would have set up a system of data reporting from voucher schools to the state.

“Members, I know that we have divergent opinions on education issues in this chamber,” Democratic Senator Gary Farmer said during debate on the amendment. “But I ask you to please ask yourselves – what is the problem with this amendment?”

Farmer joined some of his Republican colleagues in calling for the amendment to get tacked on, unsuccessfully.

“We talk all the time about transparency and accountability in this chamber. And we are sending a lot of money to a lot of schools through these tax credit scholarships,” Farmer said.  And we should be able to have the information at our fingertips to gauge whether that’s been a good investment for us.”

The failed amendment was filed by Republican Senator Tom Lee. It would have compelled private schools that take students using state vouchers report each year how many students are enrolled, and how many on vouchers. It would also have the schools report how many students withdrew or transferred, and the reasons why.

Lee pitched the amendment as rooted in common sense.

“This is a very simple amendment that requires basic information to be collected,” Lee said.

But Lee’s Republican colleague, Lakeland Senator Kelli Stargel, argued the data reporting would be burdensome on the private schools.

“Keep in mind that these private schools, many of them are wonderful private schools, that like I said, charge way more than the scholarship, for the child to attend,” Stargel said. “If you make it too difficult on these private schools, they’ll stop accepting these scholarships.”

Stargel spoke a bit about the private voucher schools in her district.

“I know in my district, most of the private schools, or many in my district, only have probably 10 kids out of 2,000 that are on these scholarships,” Stargel said. “And you’re going to tell the private school that they have to come up with a report for the Department of Education of why they do what they do, how they do (it), and all of the etcetera of that.”

Lee shot back at Stargel’s comments, saying the data is already out there.

“I’ve heard it both ways – I’ve heard the data doesn’t exist and so it’s burdensome. But it wasn’t until we filed this amendment that viola – out of the bowels of the Department of Education comes a report, Sen. Stargel. And it lists every single private school in this state, and it lists every single private school in this state, and how many are enrolled under McKay, Gardiner, Florida Tax Credit, and I guess they didn’t have the (Family Empowerment Scholarship) because this report wasn’t available then,” Lee said, in an obviously frustrated tone. “This is not the People’s Republic of China! This is the Sunshine State.”

Despite his impassioned pleas, Lee won’t be getting the accountability system he wants.

“All I’m asking them to do in this amendment, is take the data they have and please, would you put together a report and deliver it to the Florida legislature, by October 1 every year, so that year over year we can see how this program is performing, and how kids come in and out of the system,” Lee said. “We might just as easily be able to defend this program with this data.”

The bill, without a data reporting requirement, has been placed on third reading in the Senate. That sets Friday up as the last hope for the bill to ultimately pass.