School voucher bill gets second chance

Remember that school voucher bill thought to be on life support?

The proposal was given a second chance on Wednesday, thanks to a procedural maneuver by a state representative.

Many observers thought the proposed expansion of the school voucher program was off the table after Sen. Bill Galvano withdrew the Senate version of the bill (SB 1620) last week. Without a companion in the upper chamber, the voucher bill in the House (HB 7099) stood virtually no chance of becoming law.

But late Wednesday, Rep. Erik Fresen combined the voucher language with a separate bill creating education savings accounts for children with special needs. That bill (HB 5103, now PCB EDAS 14-03) has a counterpart being considered in the Senate (SB 1512), and is thus still in play.

Fresen, R-Miami, said it made sense to combine the proposals.

“The two bills were on separate paths to begin with, but they both fit under the umbrella of school choice,” he said. “This bill now covers the entire scope of school choice.”

Critics said they were disheartened — but not surprised — by the move.

“They’re just not listening to the people,” said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the statewide teachers union. “The public wants its public schools funded, and this is taking away resources.”

The voucher program, also known as the tax credit scholarship program, provides private-school scholarships to about 60,000 low-income children.

The scholarships are funded by private businesses, which receive a dollar-for-dollar credit on their corporate income taxes. The cap on tax credits is currently set at $286 million, but is set to grow to $874 million over the next five years.

Supporters are hoping to expand the cap at a faster pace in order to provide scholarships for an additional 50,000 children.

The original proposal would have allowed sales tax revenue to help fund the voucher program. It would have also enabled certain students to receive partial scholarships, and removed some of the barriers to participation in the program.

Fresen did not carry the sales tax provision over to the new combined bill.

“It was the most contentious point,” he said. “We figured if we were going to revive the bill, we should adjust that part.”

Fresen did not add language requiring scholarship students to take the state exams. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said a voucher expansion bill will not be heard in the Senate without that provision. But the House has insisted that such a requirement is both unnecessary and impractical.

“The House position has always been different from the Senate position.,” Fresen said. “All we were doing was consolidating two [House] proposals dealing with school choice.”

The new combined bill will be heard at a House Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting on Friday.

Expect some tweaks to the education savings account provision, which seeks to create accounts for children with profound disabilities. Parents could use the money as reimbursement for tuition at private schools, tutoring, learning materials or services such as applied behavior analysis, speech-language pathology and physical therapy.

What happens next will be a high-stakes battle among powerful forces.

Expanding the tax credit scholarship is a top priority for Weatherford. But Gaetz is holding firm on the testing requirement.

Adding to the drama: the education savings account provision is important to incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who has a child with special needs.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said he was not sure if the combined bill language would be heard in the Senate.

“It would still have to have a policy committee meeting, and I’m not planning on meeting again,” he said.

But Galvano, the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee chairman who spiked the original voucher proposal and is a co-sponsor on the savings account bill, said he was willing to “look at the language.”

“I still want to make sure there is strong accountability in there,” he said.

Related stories from Miami Herald