Legislature expands school voucher program

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Middle-income families in Florida would have a chance to receive a private-school voucher under a significant expansion of the state’s existing program approved Friday by the Florida Legislature.

The $300 million program already serves nearly 60,000 families, but the bill would broaden who is eligible to receive the voucher, which is currently limited to low-income families.

The vote in both the House and Senate split largely along partisan lines as Republicans defended giving more parents a choice to attend a private school, while Democrats said the private schools should be held to the same standards and testing requirements as public schools.

“Let’s let parents decide,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “Parents are the first and best educators.”

The legislation was passed in the waning moments of the 60-day session by a 29-11 vote in the Florida Senate and a 70-44 vote in the Florida House. It heads now to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott.

The existing program hands out state tax credits to businesses that pay for the vouchers. State data show that more than 80 percent of the schools participating are religious. Supporters estimate that as many 25,000 additional students are trying to get into the program.

The bill (SB 850) would let middle-income families in Florida apply to receive vouchers starting in 2016. Currently the program is limited to families who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill would also eliminate additional restrictions on who can enroll.

The voucher program expansion appeared doomed earlier this year amid a disagreement over testing requirements. Senate Republicans said that they could not support an expansion of the program without some guarantees that parents could know how well the private schools were performing on test results.

The final bill would require private schools with a majority of voucher students to publicly report standardized test results but it would not require private school students to use the same standardized test as public schools.

“This legislation affirms private school autonomy and the authority of a private school to determine its own standards and curriculum, but also ensures that parents, students, teachers and taxpayers have a valid and reliable measurement of student performance,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

But Democrats said it was wrong to use tax dollars on a program that does not require students to take the same tests as public school students.

Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall criticized the Legislature for approving the expansion. The association represents Florida’s teachers.

“There’s no conclusive evidence that vouchers improve the achievement of students who use them to attend private school,” McCall said. “Yet the Legislature continues to expand voucher schools instead of providing proper funding for our neighborhood public schools.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.