TALLAHASSEE (CBS4/NSF) – The Florida House and Senate approved a number of bills Monday to expand virtual schools and voucher programs, potentially siphoning more students away from traditional public schools.
One of the bills, an expansion of the John McKay scholarship program for students with disabilities, is one signature away from becoming law after the Senate approved the House bill on Monday.
The measures reflect a Republican priority of boosting “school choice,” whether it be more virtual classes, expansion of charter schools or vouchers for private schools. This is largely an extension of education reforms that began with Gov. Jeb Bush in the late 1990s with his push for private school vouchers.
The bills have the backing of Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned on promises that the state would offer more school choice.
But advocates for public schools see the changes to Florida”s education system as a way of chipping away at public schools by using state funds that would have gone to school districts to instead help support private schools and virtual schools.
“This Legislature…have side-stepped their requirement to take care of public schools, they are just looking for gimmicks that can save the state some money,” said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford.
Among the bills approved by the House on Monday are:
-HB 1331: Expands the definition of a failing public school from a school that has received an “F” in a four-year period to a school that has received a “D” or “F” in the prior year, and allowing students in failing public schools to use the Opportunity Scholarship to transfer to a higher-rated public school elsewhere in the state.
-HB 7197: Requires students take a virtual class prior to graduation and allows children as young as kindergarten to take full-time virtual school classes with private vendors paid for by state funds. It allows the development of virtual charter schools and expands the amount of grades the Florida Virtual School can offer.
-HB 965: Allows companies that donate to a corporate tax scholarship group to receive a tax credit worth 100 percent of that donation. Under current law, these companies only get a tax discount worth 75 percent of their contribution.
The Senate approved on Monday:
-HB 1329: An expansion of the John McKay scholarship for students with disabilities. It expands the definition of disabled students, allowing potentially up to 50,000 more students to receive state funds to attend a private school.
Democrats, especially those in South Florida, are generally opposed to these changes, citing concern about a failure to help struggling schools and an emphasis on virtual classes that may not benefit students who don”t have much exposure to computers.
“We dont have failing schools, we have failing communities because parents aren”t getting involved,” said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach. “We should be trying to make sure we get parents more involved.”
Under HB 1331, more students could leave failing schools, Democrats said, crippling the school”s ability to improve.
During debate on the virtual school expansion bill, Democrats said they were concerned about the emphasis on virtual classes, given the inconsistent exposure that Florida students have to computers. “We have students who lack home access,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami. “This puts some students at a disadvantage.”
The Senate also passed a bill (SB 1546) last week that makes it easier for highly-rated charter schools to expand enrollment and add grades, paving the way for more charter schools competing for public school students.
The combination of these bills and a cut to school funding in the budget means tough times for school districts, said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a former superintendent.
“You will see some tough times in school districts throughout Florida,” Montford said.