Politics

Vouchers Back In Play In Florida Senate

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Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – An 11th-hour amendment could revive legislation dealing with the state’s de facto voucher system, boosting the chances for one of House Speaker Will Weatherford’s priorities after it was left for dead.

The amendment, filed by Sen. Bill Galvano, is set to be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. The language changes several of the accountability measures faced by private schools that accept the vouchers.

Galvano, R-Brandenton, said the amendment was an offer of sorts to the House to keep the voucher issue alive.

While expansion of and accountability for the voucher system is part of the joint House-Senate work plan that is supposed to guide the session, the issue is much more closely associated with Weatherford.

“There’s an effort,” Galvano said. “I’m not representing to you that the House has signed off on that language. But it’s an effort to perhaps have further discussions on the issue.”

Speaking to reporters during a joint press availability Tuesday with Senate President Don Gaetz, Weatherford said he hadn’t seen the new language. But both he and Gaetz, sounded optimistic about the proposal.

“The president and I are both committed to creating more school choice for students in Florida,” Weatherford said. “The president wants to find new accountability measurements to kind of bring alongside with the growth in the program. The House believes that’s a good idea. Right now we’re negotiating on what that looks like.”

Weatherford’s Monday comments marked a striking change in tone from little more than a week ago, when Gaetz said the House measure didn’t have enough accountability and Weatherford essentially said the ball was in the Senate’s court.

Mirroring a House maneuver, Galavano’s language dealing with the voucher system — technically known as the Tax Credit Scholarship Program because businesses donate to the program in return for tax credits —would be added to a bill (SB 1512) that is meant to help the parents of students with disabilities pay for educational services.

While Weatherford has pushed for measures that would expand eligibility for the program, Gaetz has pressed for better ways to measure student learning at the private schools. Under Galvano’s amendment, an institute at Florida State University would be charged with reporting on how well students in the program do on national tests.

But the students would not be required to take the state tests that public schoolchildren take — an idea that was a non-starter in the House, where some members objected that administering those tests at private schools could have the effect of dictating curriculum to the private institutions.

It would also strengthen financial accountability for non-profit organizations that actually raise the money for and give out the scholarships, although currently only one such group operates in Florida.

Even with Galvano’s amendment, the bills would still be far apart. The Senate would essentially keep the currently eligibility standards, capped at an annual income of $43,568 for a family of four. The House plan would allow partial scholarships for families of the same size earning up to $62,010.

The Senate bill would expand eligibility to foster children.

The voucher legislation was left for dead last month after the Senate abruptly shelved Galvano’s original expansion legislation (SB 1620). Since then, the House has progressively watered down its proposal even, until Monday, as the Senate largely refused to budge.

The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.

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