Voucher bill passes Senate PreK-12 Education Committee on party-line

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A bill that would allow an additional 6,500 students to use a state-backed voucher program passed the Senate PreK-12 Education Committee on a party-line vote Monday, the latest step in a long-running battle over the pace of the program’s expansion, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Under the measure (SB 962), which passed the panel 4-2, the cap on the total tax credits used to fund the program would rise by almost $31.3 million in 2012-13, setting the cap at $250 million. That would amount to a 42 percent increase from the current-year cap of $175 million.

Current law allows the cap to increase by 25 percent in any year after approved applications to the program use at least 90 percent of the budget. The program is aimed at allowing low-income students to attend private schools, something that Republicans says increases choice and educational opportunity but some Democrats complain siphons money away from public schools.

“The core of this bill seeks to meet the overwhelming increase in demand for these children, whose low-income families qualify for the scholarship program, and allows them to seek a quality education that they otherwise could not afford,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

Supporters also argue that the program actually saves the state money, because the scholarships given to students are actually smaller than their share of their public school’s funding. The scholarships are paid for with donations by corporations, who then claim the size of the contribution as a tax credit.

School-choice advocates, who have continually pushed for the cap to be moved upward, applauded the decision.

“This successful, cost-saving program has given thousands of low-income students a chance in their education that would not otherwise be available for them,” said Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, in a statement issued after the vote. “The changes SB 962 introduces will give even more parents a voice in their children’s education.”

Democrats also argued Monday that private schools in the program are not required to measure their program using the state’s FCAT test. Instead, those schools can use one of a number of national tests approved by the Florida Department of Education.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said he was not necessarily opposed to the scholarship program per se.

“What I am a supporter of is the same game, same rules, same playing field,” said Montford, the CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. ” … Those children deserve the same protection.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.