TALLAHASSEE – The Florida House passed a plan Friday to expand the state's school-voucher program, although it no longer raises the cap on how much tax money could be used to support low-income students in private schools.
Instead, the bill, HB 7167, would help steer more families into the program by raising the income levels allowed for students to utilize the voucher system, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
After Senate Republicans declared the bill on life-support, House Republicans had salvaged the push to ramp up the "cap" for corporations funding vouchers in exchange for tax credits by merging it with a "learning-account" bill for parents of disabled children.
But the House, which passed the bill 73-43, defeated an attempt to require voucher students to take the same standardized tests as public school peers. Voucher students currently do take standardized tests, just not the same FCAT test public students have taken. Senate Republicans have said they wanted stronger assessments of voucher students before they would sanction any expansion of the program -- a position Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, reiterated Friday.
"There are 22 different assessments, any one of them can be selected by a school that offers tax-credit scholarships to students," Gaetz told reporters. "The difference is the Senate position is there has to be a way to validly and reliably report to parents, and report to teachers, and report to the community about student performance."
Before stripping the higher cap, the bill would have allowed the $286.2 million cap on tax credits for companies sponsoring the vouchers to climb by $30 million more per year over what the law already allows – which is already set to grow to nearly $900 million by 2019. The program currently has 51,000 students enrolled and attending private, sometimes religious schools. But the extra $30 million annual cap increase was stripped on the House floor Wednesday.
The bill still contains language that allows families with higher incomes to qualify for partial scholarships – up to 260 percent of poverty, or households of four making $62,000 a year.
"The wealthy have always had a choice becauase they can put their children in a private school," said Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican sponsoring the bill.
"We know the wealthy have choices, but let's not expand choice to the middle class?"
But House Republicans earlier this week defeated an amendment by Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, which would have required the same standardized tests for voucher students as those taken by public school students.
On the House floor Friday, Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican and son of the Senate president, also criticized his party for defeating Dentel's amendment.
"We’re the party of accountability, and it takes a Democrat from the back row to remind us we’re the party of accountability," Gaetz said.
"What an opportunity we have missed to not bring the same accountability standards forward."Copyright © 2015, CT Now