ST. PETERSBURG — Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott on Thursday blew the door wide open to the idea of a voucherlike program for all students, saying he's working with lawmakers to allow state education dollars to follow a student to the school his or her parents choose.
He did not use the term vouchers. Others called it an "education savings account."
But whatever it's called, the incoming governor, key lawmakers and a foundation tied to former Gov. Jeb Bush are setting the stage for Florida to consider one of the most radical education ideas that it — or arguably any state — has ever considered.
"The parent should figure out where the dollars for that student are spent," Scott told the St. Petersburg Times after hinting at the idea in remarks to 900 voucher students in St. Petersburg.
"So if the parents want to spend it on virtual school, then spend it on virtual school," he continued. "If they want to spend it on, you know, whatever education system they believe in, whether it's this public school or that public school or this private school or that private school, that's what ought to happen."
According to Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, the proposal would allow parents to take an undetermined percentage of the state's per-student funding amount — last year, it was $6,843 — and direct it to the school of their choice, public or private.
Asked about Scott's interest in expanding vouchers, Sen. John Thrasher said, "You mean the education savings accounts?"
"There's interest in it, but it's a preliminary discussion," said Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, noting Senate President Mike Haridopolos has discussed the idea with his leadership team. "When we come back in January, I'm sure we'll talk about it in more detail."
Sherman Dorn, an education professor at the University of South Florida, said the idea would likely face the same legal hurdles as Florida's first voucher program. The Florida Supreme Court struck down Opportunity Scholarships in 2006, saying they violated a constitutional provision for a "uniform system of free public schools."
But Dorn also questioned whether even a Legislature with a newly veto-proof Republican majority would go for it.
The state's two current voucher programs serve disabled and low-income students and for them, "You can plausibly make an argument that it's an equity issue," Dorn said. "But when you say let's give a voucher to a lawyer who makes $250,000, when their kid is doing just fine in a suburban school, a lot of people are going to say, 'What? Huh? This is sensible public policy?' "
Scott has made no bones about his desire to push the limits on education policy in Florida, which has been on the cutting edge of reform since Bush took office in 1999. But "education savings accounts" would be far-out even by Florida standards.
The state's McKay vouchers serve 21,000 students with disabilities, while its tax-credit vouchers serve about 33,000 low-income students.
The latter is in the midst of a rapid expansion, thanks to changes by the Legislature last spring. Four years from now it's expected to serve 80,000 students and rake in $400 million a year from corporations that get tax write-offs for contributions.
Scott was at an event Thursday honoring big business donors to that program when he suggested an even bigger, voucherlike program is on its way. He told a cheering crowd at Suncoast Cathedral, an evangelical church in St. Petersburg, that he wants to expand options that allow students to attend the schools of their choice at public expense.
"We have a great opportunity this spring, in this (legislative) session, to make sure we pass an education bill that is 100 percent for the benefit of the kids, and give every child in the state every opportunity that you've had, to make sure that you go to whatever school you want to," he said.
In an interview later, Scott said there are no details yet, but his education transition team — which is expected to issue recommendations in coming weeks — knows he values the "follow-the-dollars" concept. And he said lawmakers will consider something along those lines in the legislative session beginning in March.
"The way I look at it is, we're allocating dollars to students and the parents ought to figure out how to spend those dollars because they can figure out what their child needs more than anybody else," he said.
Bush's think tank will include the proposal among its top legislative priorities.
"Think of it as Bright Futures for K-12," said Jaryn Emhoff, spokeswoman for the Foundation for Florida's Future.
Like Bright Futures, the popular state program that gives high-achieving high school students money for college, the tax dollars used by the K-12 program could be spent at a private school.
No bill has been introduced, but in a paper by the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, a conservative think thank where the idea originated, states would deposit money into a child's "savings account" instead of channeling education dollars through the public system.
Dennis Bakke, head of Imagine Schools, one of the biggest charter school companies in Florida, said Scott simply wants parents to have more education choices.
"There really needs to be more options," said Bakke, a member of Scott's transition team. (Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia also is on the team.)
Dorn, though, said what's proposed "would result in chaos."
Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.