Massive expansion of school scholarship programs filed in Florida House

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House Speaker Will Weatherford filed a bill calling for sweeping changes to the state’s de facto school voucher program, which could lead to one of the most heated battles in the 2014 legislative session.

Weatherford’s bill (PCB FTSC 14-02) allows redirection of sales-tax payments into the system; making middle-class families eligible for partial scholarships and increasing the private school costs each grant would cover.

In addition, there would be a cap on fundraising for the program; tougher standards on scholarship providers and eliminating the requirement that middle- and high-school students to attend a public school for a minimum of one year before qualifying for a scholarship.

Making the program available to a greater number of students is the purpose, Weatherford told Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

“I’d like to get to a place where there never has to be a waiting list,” Weatherford said. “If there’s a single mom who’s got a son or a daughter who’s stuck in a failing school, and she wants to go into the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to give her kid a better chance in life, I would never want to say, ‘Our door is shut to you because we hit the cap and we don’t have enough room for your child.’ “

Although the company providing scholarships did not keep track of how many families are on the waiting list, around 60,000 scholarships were issued last year, with about 34,000 students beginning the application process before the cut-off.

“We think that suggests that there is a fair upside still to families wanting this scholarship,” Step Up For Students representative Jon East told the News Service. “I think it’s fair to say that there’s quite a bit of unmet need.”

The most radical change suggested in the bill is giving retailers the option to redirect sales-tax revenues to scholarship programs, instead of going to the state, and provide tax credits for businesses that do divert funds. Currently, corporate and insurance premium taxes fund the program.

Requirements for partial scholarships will also change. Families are currently eligible for scholarships if they also qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — a family of four can make no more than $43,568.

If passed, eligibility would be tied to the federal poverty level. Partial scholarships could be available if family income is no more than 260 percent of the federal poverty level — $62,010 for a family of four. For those families, Full scholarships would cap at $47,700, Larrabee writes.

There would also be an further boost of the scholarship cap to $390 million, up from the already increased to $358 million in the 2014-15 school year. The cap would then be limited to about $30 million above what it otherwise would over the past few years — the cap currently sits at 25 percent every time it reaches a predetermined growth standard set by the Legislature.

The expected companion Senate bill would probably include standardized tests as a requirement for scholarships. Although there is now a standardized test prerequisite, but it is not necessarily the same as used in public schools.

Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, is hesitant about allowing sales taxes to be used for the program.

“The net result is a reduction into the general fund, which means there would be a reduction in what is spent on education and health care and across the board,” Montford told the News Service Thursday.

“We don’t understand why some lawmakers in the state continue to fail to understand that their primary obligation is to our public schools, not to creating and expanding a parallel system,” said Florida Education Association spokesperson Mark Pudlow.

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.