Florida Politics

Lawmakers OK expansion to school voucher programs

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, began his tenure as House speaker last fall by prioritizing, in particular, an expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The Senate approved a bill to do so on Friday.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, began his tenure as House speaker last fall by prioritizing, in particular, an expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The Senate approved a bill to do so on Friday. TAMPA BAY TIMES

Lawmakers on Friday signed off on significant expansions to two of Florida’s premiere voucher programs for education that help children with disabilities pay for alternative learning options and help poor children to afford private school.

Senators approved HB 15 by a 27-11 vote, with four Democrats joining Republicans in support. The House approved the same language by a 101-11 vote later in the day with little discussion, sending the bill to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk on the final day lawmakers could approve policy this session.

The bill’s passage marks another session victory for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.

Corcoran opened the 2017 session by prioritizing, in particular, growing the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is facilitated almost entirely by a single organization that is led by an influential and wealthy school choice advocate. The scholarship aids low-income, mostly minority families by giving dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to businesses that donate money, which then pays for private school scholarships.

HB 15 calls for raising the amounts for the tax credit awards so that families can stay in the program when their children advance to high school, where private education is more expensive.

Several Democratic senators said they didn’t want to “divert” more dollars to the tax credits — dollars they argue could otherwise go to improving K-12 public schools — but they struggled with voting “no” because they do support the Gardiner Scholarship to help children with disabilities.

By putting the programs in a single bill, House Republicans linked the expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship to that of the tax-credit awards — meaning lawmakers could not expand one voucher program without the other.

The Senate wanted to decide on expanding each program through separate legislation, but the chamber agreed this week to take the House version.

“The Gardiner Scholarship program is a fantastic program, so I want desperately to be able to support this bill because of those provisions … but I am philosophically opposed to corporate tax vouchers and diverting money away from our general funds, which could be used to improve our public school system,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

“We all wish there was more money to go around. Until there is, we should not do this,” added Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point.

No senator spoke against broadening the Gardiner Scholarship so that more children could qualify, such as those with certain “rare” diseases or conditions and those who are deaf, blind or have suffered a traumatic brain injury. The expansion is estimated to cost $14 million.

Proponents of the bill defended against the criticism of the tax credit scholarships, which this year paid for the private education of 97,000 students whose families’ household income is, on average, slightly above the poverty level. About 69 percent of the student participants are black or Hispanic.

“If we want to keep from failing our children, we have got to support this program and we have got to support these children who have no hope without it,” Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young said.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said: “It has helped children, it has helped families, it is a success — and that’s why it’s doing so well right now.”

Democrats Daphne Campbell of Miami Shores, Bill Montford of Tallahassee, Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Linda Stewart of Orlando broke with the rest of their caucus and voted “yes.”

The 11 “no” votes in the House were all Democrats — including Reps. Robert Asencio and Cynthia Stafford of Miami, Miami Gardens Rep. Barbara Watson, Dania Beach Rep. Evan Jenne and Rep. Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes.

Tampa venture capitalist John Kirtley, who fought for lawmakers to create the tax-credit program more than 15 years ago, is chairman of Step Up for Students, the main organization that now distributes the scholarships. Kirtley has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars — through his own wealth and his American Federation for Children and other groups — to elect proponents of school choice to the Legislature and county school boards in Florida.

In Corcoran’s first official speech as House speaker last fall, he made a point to mention the tax credit scholarships — and notably called the state’s largest teachers union “evil” for attempting to fight it in court. (The union argued it was unconstitutional, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled the group didn’t have standing to sue.)

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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