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.
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