TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/AP) — Gov. Rick Scott signed a controversial expansion of eligibility for the state’s de facto school-voucher system and 57 other bills Friday, nearly completing the work of deciding which measures from the spring legislative session to approve.
The voucher provisions are part of a wide-ranging, 140-page education bill (SB 850) that is also aimed at helping parents of students with disabilities pay for educational services. The measure also makes changes in middle school and career education.
The changes to the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides tax breaks to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that then pay for children to go to private schools, was a major priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. Weatherford started the 2014 session pushing for even more sweeping changes, but the Senate balked.
Under the new law, a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year will be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit. The value of each individual scholarship would also rise.
In a concession to Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the bill also changes how the state measures the learning of students in the voucher program. But those students will still not be required to take the state test developed for public schools.
The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, ripped Scott’s decision to sign the bill in a statement issued Friday.
“Public schools face a strict accountability regimen that includes frequent testing, school grades and punitive actions for not meeting state mandates,” said FEA Vice President Joanne McCall. “But taxpayer dollars flowing to voucher schools require very little accountability and can in no way be compared to what is required for public schools.”
But supporters said the bill would benefit students by allowing parents to have more control over their children’s education.
“Florida’s neediest students, both students trapped in schools that are failing them and students with special needs, will have more access to programs that will help them succeed,” said Christopher Hudson, state director of the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group.
The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee and Margie Menzel contributed to this report.