Last-ditch effort to revive voucher bill heats up in Senate

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Expanding Florida’s de facto school voucher program will not be part of a Senate bill to help families pay for the education of disabled students, according to sponsor Sen. Kelli Stargel.

Stargel’s stand could spell trouble for the last-minute shot by House Speaker Will Weatherford to push through a comprehensive measure for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program before his tenure as Speaker ends, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Increasing revenue to the program and broadening voucher eligibility for more students has been one of the elements of the joint Senate-House 2014 “Work Plan” conceived by Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz.

However, the effort stalled when Senate leaders withdrew the proposal, proclaiming it all but lost for 2014. The House then tacked on a voucher extension to Stargel’s companion bill (HB 7167).

“You’ve seen this process work,” Stargel told Larrabee after a third committee passed her bill (SB 1512). “Things happen, and maneuvers happen all the time. I can tell you at this point it’s not my will to make this be the vehicle for the Tax Credit Scholarship program.”

Although House leaders say the two bills are a natural fit by expanding options for parents, Weatherford declined to discuss directly if he would consider Stargel’s personal learning accounts bill without the voucher expansion amendment.

“We believe in choice for everybody,” Weatherford explained. “We believe in choice for children with disabilities. We believe in choice for students who are stuck in failing schools. We believe in choice for people who come from lower socioeconomic status households. We believe in choice. And that’s why we put the bills together.”

Currently, corporate contributions are what fund the voucher program to help send low-income children to private schools; in exchange, they receive tax credits.

Stargel’s bill, the version that passed the Senate Education Appropriations Committee, had some significant changes. Initially, the program would be through the Department of Education, now it is under the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, and is available to more students.

One supporter is concerned the program’s move to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which recently struggled to close a budget gap.

“This is from an agency that historically, as far as I’m aware, has had significant trouble being able to do the functions that it is presently doing,” said Republican Sen. David Simmons.

Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard, the only “no” vote on the bill, feels it moves too fast. The bill should rightfully go to a health care committee first, Bullard tells the News Service since it is under the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

“To do it right now seems a little bit irresponsible,” he added.

The final stop for the bill, prior to a full Senate vote, is the Appropriations Committee.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.