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School Voucher Expansion Seems Unlikely in 2014


BRADENTON – Republican legislators put on a strong push to pass pro-charter school bills during the 2014 session, including legislation which would amount to a vast expansion of Florida's charter school scholarship program. However, Senator Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) withdrew his expansion bill this week, amid disaccord over accountability.

Galvano's SB 1620, along with its companion bill HB 7099, would have increased the number of tax credit scholarships in a program that provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families, while allowing businesses to divert sales tax funds to fund vouchers.

Under current law, the scholarships are funded by businesses, which then receive a dollar-for-dollar credit on their corporate taxes. The new law would allow them to also claim a dollar-for-dollar credit on their sales taxes.

But voucher supporters were not on board with the notion that students using them should take assessments comparable to those taken by students at public schools, and Senate President Don Gaetz said that his chamber was finished considering the issue.

"Frankly, I'm disappointed," Gaetz told reporters on Thursday. "I had hoped 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 more financial and academic accountability to this program."

House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel), who had deemed the expansion a top priority, expressed disappointment over the collapse of support in the Senate.

“It's a shame. A terrible shame," Weatherford 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."

While this bill seems to be dead in 2014, there are still other pro-charter bills that have been submitted.

SB 1512 and its companion, HB 5103, would create "personalized learning accounts" for children with certain disabilities. Parents would then be able to use the accounts to pay for tuition for certain therapy services (speech-language pathology, etc.), learning materials, tutoring, or ... charter school tuition.

HB 1255 would allow the Florida Department of Education to designate certain neighborhoods as "educational student achievement zones," allowing the education commissioner to request proposals to "deliver services" within the zone from educational providers, including charter schools.

SB 1100 would allow a small number of public schools to have control of their budgets, and hire and fire teachers without school board approval, like charter schools do. Other legislation encourages military commanders to create charter schools on their installations.

Proponents of vouchers and other pro-charter instruments, argue that expanding choice to poor and special needs children will improve educational outcome. Meanwhile, opponents, including public school districts and teacher unions, argue that the state should put more emphasis on increasing resources to its public education system.


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