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“Opportunity Scholarships”: Lawmakers Revive Vast Expansion of School Vouchers By Riding Coattails of Students With Disabilities

| March 29, 2014

Florida legislators are riding a wave of opportunism to revive hopes of expanding the state's school voucher program. (Joshua Zader)

Florida legislators are riding a wave of opportunism to revive hopes of expanding the state’s school voucher program. (Joshua Zader)

An attempt to revive a sweeping expansion of the state’s de facto voucher system passed a House subcommittee on a party-line vote Friday, setting up a potential showdown with the Senate over school choice legislation.

The House Education Appropriations Subcommittee voted 8-4 to introduce the measure (PCB EDAS 14-03), which would bind together a program aimed at students with disabilities and the voucher expansion. Senate leaders last week pulled their counterpart to the House voucher bill, but the measure for students with disabilities remains alive.

“I wanted to make sure that we gave what I think are two incredibly necessary pieces of legislation the hope of survival in the session,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who chairs the subcommittee and introduced the bill.

The House move injected legislative brinksmanship to the debate about one of House Speaker Will Weatherford’s top priorities. Bills establishing a “Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program,” which would reimburse parents for some educational services for children with disabilities, have been moving on both sides of the Capitol.

The Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee is set to hear its version of the personal learning accounts bill (SB 1512) on Wednesday.

But Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told reporters that he wasn’t trying to jam the Senate by attaching the two measures.

“They both give parents choice,” he said. “There’s a good marriage there. And we think that the Senate will hopefully give another look at the (voucher) issue.”

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, ripped the move to combine the two measures during comments at the subcommittee meeting Friday.

“While we have concerns about the personal learning accounts for children with disabilities, I have to say, as a teacher who taught disabled students daily, that this attempt to salvage the expansion of the … voucher program by attaching it to this bill is disingenuous to the public and those of us who have dedicated our lives to serving disabled students,” said FEA Vice President Joanne McCall.

Fresen’s new bill drops one of the most controversial elements of the original voucher measure, which would have allowed retailers to funnel some of their sales-tax collections into the program. The system is now funded largely by donations from corporations, which then get credit against corporate-income taxes, insurance-premium taxes and similar charges.

The legislation would still increase a cap on the program’s fundraising by $30 million beyond the increase currently allowed in law for the next five years.

The value of each voucher would increase, and middle-class families would qualify for partial scholarships. For example, a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year would be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit.

On Friday, Democrats argued that the overhaul fundamentally changes the nature of the program.

“The core mission was to provide these corporate tax scholarships for low-income families,” said Rep. Dwayne Taylor of Daytona Beach, the subcommittee’s top Democrat. “It’s now deviated from that to families who are able to pay for their private educations.”

The reach of the House bill has allowed Democrats to overcome their traditional divisions on the voucher issue. They voted this week to take a caucus position against the bill, largely binding members to oppose the expansion.

Rep. Mark Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat who will lead the caucus after the 2014 elections, and two other prominent House Democrats sat in on the meeting Friday despite not being on the subcommittee.

Fresen lashed out at those opposing the bill, saying public money is sent to private organizations for preschool and higher education.

“But somehow, God forbid a public dollar in the K-12 system be utilized by a parent’s choice to educate a child that has a specific need or a specific condition or just a specific desire to be outside of the system that was prescribed to it by the public,” he said.

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

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8 Responses for ““Opportunity Scholarships”: Lawmakers Revive Vast Expansion of School Vouchers By Riding Coattails of Students With Disabilities”

  1. A.S.F. says:

    Using the disabled to promote their own interests–Every time I think Conservative republicans cannot possibly get any more cynical and morally corrupt, they manage to surprise me.

  2. Liana G says:

    Good! Another start in the right direction! Sad that a well meaning program – school vouchers for all – got hijacked by unscrupulous character(s). Maybe the guy who caused the last bill to fail was a lobbyist for the teacher unions. Who else would have a vested interest in seeing this bill fail?

    • A.S.F. says:

      @Liana G says–Answer to your last question: Anyone with a vested interest in ensuring that public schools in Florida survive.

  3. Merrill Shapiro says:

    If there is a school that receives voucher-enabled students that is better than the average district public school, why can’t we have one here in Flagler County?

    “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require”.–Florida Constitution, Article IX, Section 1

  4. JG says:

    Why don’t the Republicans just go ahead and introduce a bill to re-segregate public schools. That is their ideology so why not admit it?

  5. Nancy N. says:

    Oh hell no…I’ll be damned if the GOP are going to turn my child into a political pawn, a trojan horse they can use to sneak in the measure they really care about forcing down our throats. Have they no shame, using disabled kids as a political shield?

    • Anonymous says:

      Hey Nancy N. ! Your child IS and HAS been a political pawn for the dems for freakin’ years! Wake up! Think they care about YOUR childs education more than the Teacher’s Union pay-off? You REALLY need to be educated, hopefully NOT in a government (yes, small g) school….and please, don’t talk about about a party (eh-hem), forcing a legislative issue down OUR (cough-cough) throats. Trojan horse? Hey, lets pass it to see whats in it!!!

  6. A.S.F. says:

    Funny how no one ever talks about how many “private” parochial schools have historically let children down who were abused by priests and others within the confines of THOSE exalted institutions.

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