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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

FEA urges veto of voucher expansion, sparking defense of bill by supporters

School vouchers, one of the Florida Legislature's most hotly debated issues as the 2014 session wound down, continues to inflame passionate arguments as a bill to expand the concept heads to Gov. Rick Scott.

On Wednesday, the Florida Education Association sent a letter to Scott, urging him to veto SB 850, which would allow more students to receive corporate tax credit scholarships, including the addition of a new program for students with special needs. The scholarship program has grown rapidly since its establishment in 2001, with the strong support of the Republican-dominated Legislature.

FEA vice president Joanne McCall offered five reasons to oppose the measure:

"SB 850 creates additional tax loopholes for corporations to fund private and religious schools at the expense of public schools;

"The bill expands the controversial corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program which diverts public money away from our public schools and provides it to private and religious schools with little oversight or accountability.  Originally passed by the legislature as a way to provide options to low income students in struggling public schools, the program now funds a parallel system of private and religious schools in Florida;

"With over 80% of the children in this program using these vouchers to attend religious schools, this program violates the will of Florida’s voters who overwhelmingly voted to preserve our state’s constitutional provision regarding the separation of church and state in 2012; 

"Private and religious schools accepting these state sponsored vouchers still have little accountability while public schools and public school students are subject to intense scrutiny and demoralizing penalties.  Students attending these schools as part of this state-funded program are not required to take the state mandated tests, teachers hired by these schools do not have to be certified and there is no penalty for poor student performance; and

"In addition to expanding the corporate Tax Scholarship Program, this bill also creates a new entitlement program for disabled students participating in home, private and religious school education programs - even though the state continues to underfund the public school programs mandated by the federal government to assist this same population."

This commentary, along with similar arguments by other opponents, have prompted supporters to rise up for the bill. Step Up for Students, which oversees the voucher program, has taken the lead on its blog. This morning, blogger Patrick Gibbons takes issue with the notion that the scholarships divert funds from public schools.

"If you attend a private school, the state will not pay for you to NOT attend a public school. This is true whether you pay for the private education yourself, or if you use a tax-credit scholarship, or voucher. The same principle holds true if you choose a career academy, charter school, virtual school, International Baccalaureate or magnet program. The district is paid for the cost of you attending the chosen school and receives no compensation for the assigned school where you might have left an empty seat," Gibbons writes.

"'Diverting' and 'defunding' are scary words that evoke emotion, but they are misleading. The money doesn’t belong to a school until a student shows up at the door. So tax-credit scholarships or vouchers or magnet schools don’t divert money; they just help more people CHOOSE a different option. Then the state pays the school that is educating that child. It’s as simple as that."

Scott has signaled support for the expansion. But there's still time for both sides to make their case: SB 850 hasn't yet been delivered to the governor, and he'll have 15 days after that to make his formal decision.

[Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014 8:42am]

    

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