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Bill Vastly Expanding School Vouchers Dies As Questions About Accountability Mounted

| March 22, 2014

No reason to mourn the latest attempt by the Florida Legislature to privatize education at public expense. (Andy Jones)

No reason to mourn the latest attempt by the Florida Legislature to privatize education at public expense. (Andy Jones)

A sweeping expansion of the state’s de facto voucher system was abruptly pulled in the Senate on Thursday, leaving one of the top priorities of Republican leaders all but dead less than a month into the session.

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Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, withdrew the Senate’s version of the legislation (SB 1620), saying it needed more time to be vetted. The move, coming on the 17th day of the 60-day session, was unexpected — especially given that the bill was part of the joint House-Senate “work plan” backed by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The drive to expand the program could still be revived, but Gaetz indicated that was unlikely to happen.

“I had hoped that we would be able to do two things at the same time: One to expand the opportunity for low-income families to have more choice in education; and at the same time bring financial and academic accountability to this program — the tax credit scholarship program,” Gaetz told reporters. “Apparently, we’re not going to be able to do that this session.”

In a brief interview Thursday, Galvano said he was concerned about how to bring accountability for the voucher program into line with new language-arts and math tests being developed by the Florida Department of Education. Students in the voucher program are required to take tests to measure their learning, but they aren’t required to use the state exam — something Senate leaders had suggested they wanted to change.

“I think the bill needs an accountability piece,” Galvano said.

The decision represents a defeat for Weatherford, who was home schooled as a child and strongly pushed the expansion of the system, which gives companies tax credits for donating to scholarship funds that help children attend private schools.

“It’s a shame. A terrible shame,” he said in a statement. “Thousands of children seeking more opportunities for a better life will be denied. I cannot see any reason why we’d quit on these kids.”

John Kirtley, head of the only organization that offers the scholarships allowed under the law, also conceded defeat in a statement.

“It is a very difficult task to quickly remake the academic accountability for this program, especially in this environment,” Kirtley said. “We appreciate the efforts of Speaker Weatherford, President Gaetz, Senator Galvano and Rep. (Manny) Diaz to try (to) work this out.”

The legislation was one of the most-ambitious efforts to expand the program in years. Under the bills, retailers would have been allowed to divert sales-tax payments to the system. The program is now funded largely by donations from corporations, which then get credit against corporate-income taxes, insurance-premium taxes and similar charges.

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.

The bill would also increase a cap on the program’s fundraising; drop for many students a requirement that middle school or high school students attend public schools for at least one year before qualifying for vouchers; and toughen standards on organizations that provide the scholarships.

The scale of the overhaul prompted objections from even some Democrats who often vote with Republicans on voucher bills.

The apparent death of the bill was a victory for the Florida Education Association, the state’s main teachers’ union. FEA spearheaded opposition to the measure, with support coming from groups like the PTA and other advocates for public education, arguing that the bill would siphon off money that could be used for public schools.

“I think they heard us,” said FEA vice president Joanne McCall. “But it’s still early in the session.”

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

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7 Responses for “Bill Vastly Expanding School Vouchers Dies As Questions About Accountability Mounted”

  1. Concerned Citizen says:

    We have anti-trust laws in place to prevent monopolies and encourage a society that is open to ideas and competition which has made our nation the great beacon of light it has been in the world.

    And yet when it comes to childhood education, teacher’s unions seem to think there has to be a one size fits all monopoly they must be in absolute control of and damn competitive ideas. That’s unconstitutional because at it’s core it is selfish.

    Kinda reminds you of how the IRS recently reacting to the Tea Party’s goal to shut down the IRS and replace it with something much less costly and more productive, doesn’t it? They flat-out blocked their ability to do political business across America when 100% of us would benefit from less taxes that would come from less paper chase.

    But why not have both public schools and vouchers. And why not charter schools and even encourage homeschool?

    But doesn’t all that diminish the teacher’s union’s special interest power, wouldn’t it?

    Seems so many people want to rule the world these days. Go figure.

    • Nancy N. says:

      You don’t have to be a member of a teacher’s union to oppose vouchers. I am vehemently opposed to them and I am not a teacher or a union member, or employed in any way by a public school district.

      Here’s why:

      1) I strongly object to my tax dollars being spent against my will to finance religious education institutions that teach children that I am lesser than them and which fail to educate them properly on science. “Voucher” programs are nothing but a thinly veiled effort to funnel public money to religious education, in violation of the separation of church and state.

      2) Funneling money and resources and large numbers of students into private educational institutions inevitably leaves the public institutions with only the undesirable students that private institutions won’t take – kids with disciplinary issues, handicapped kids, etc – and those who do not want a religious education. Large scale use of vouchers would turn public schools into the “house of undesirables” – you went to public school? what is wrong with you?

  2. Teach Who says:

    Don’t worry, in a few years there won’t be enough children born for the new generation to teach. All those abortions and gay marriages have pretty much STOPPED the American family from growing and producing offspring…..You reap what you sew !!!

    • Nancy N. says:

      The abortion rate is lower than ever thanks to obstructionist GOP policies, and the increasing availability of birth control.

      Gay families have children too…I know of plenty who do, just not through the traditional means a hetero couple does. They adopt, use non-traditional birth arrangements…whatever works for their particular situation. And yes, the birth rate did dip temporarily during the recession but that was due to the Bush-created economic crisis making it unaffordable for people to expand their families, not abortion or gay marriage.

      But don’t let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of your opinions.

    • A.S.F. says:

      @Teach Who Says–I would suggest that abortions and gay marriage aren’t as rampant as you think. However, fear-based prejudice abounds, thanks to the Tea Party crazies, the powers that cynically support and use them to achieve their own ends and media outlets like FOX news (who do the same.)

    • JG says:

      You also reap what you “SOW” using birth control but that doesn’t fit into your fundamentalist mindset, does it?

  3. A.S.F. says:

    We already have Charter schools and home schooling. No one is taking that away from anyone. However, diverting vital funds away from public schools could be an absolute disaster. If you want to send your child to a private school, by all means…do so. I don’t happen to have children of school age, yet I am perfectly content to pay taxes for the education of children. I don’t pitch a fit about how MY hard-earned money is being unfairly hijacked. And I don’t blame the teacher’s unions either for my private and political dissatisfactions. I don’t subscribe to the ridiculous belief that they wish to “rule the world.” Teachers have an often difficult and very challenging task in trying to teach America’s children, many times in less than ideal circumstances. We should be thanking and supporting them–not making them out to be “the enemy.” Private school teachers are not a special breed apart from public school teachers and I don’t know what would make people assume that they are. Children and young adults look up to us as examples of how to think and act. How do you expect them to respect the teachers in our public schools if we don’t?

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