TALLAHASSEE — Nearly 200 schoolchildren greeted Senate President Don Gaetz last month when he visited a Catholic school in Pensacola to get a firsthand look at the impact of Florida's controversial school voucher program.
Gaetz said he left St. John the Evangelist Catholic School convinced that the Florida Legislature should expand the program, which provides private-school scholarships to low-income children. But the fate of the proposed expansion is not riding on the power of persuasion from students, parents and teachers alone.
More powerful political forces are at work in Tallahassee.
Those forces include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and influential think tanks like the conservative James Madison Institute and former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future. All have thrown their considerable weight behind the expansion.
And then there is the money. The voucher program's top supporter, Tampa venture capitalist John Kirtley, controls a political committee in Florida that spent nearly $2.4 million to influence races in 2010 and 2012. He plans to spend at least $1.5 million in 2014, he said.
The efforts have made expanding the voucher program a top priority of this year's legislative session.
Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat and longtime opponent of school vouchers, said the money has had a "huge" effect.
"Here we are, ready to blow the door off the hinges," he said.
The voucher program, also known as the corporate tax credit scholarship program, offers a dollar-for-dollar corporate tax credit to businesses that help fund its scholarships.
Over the past decade, the Legislature has steadily increased the cap on tax credits available through the program. The current limit, $286 million, funds about 60,000 scholarships.
That number is already set to grow over time. But lawmakers are considering adding another $30 million, or up to $120 million over the next four years, to reach a cap of $874 million in 2018-19, which is already allowed in law.
The move would accommodate the nearly 50,000 children on the waiting list.
The bill has its first hearing Thursday.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, considers the bill among his top priorities this year.
Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former schools superintendent, is also supportive, but he wants to add a requirement that scholarship students take the same standardized tests as children in traditional public schools.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott is on board, too.
"The tax credit scholarship program has been a success," Scott told the Times/Herald. "It's great for kids. I'm very supportive of the expansion of opportunities for children."
The three leaders said their opinions had not been swayed by campaign contributions or organizations with political pull.
"There are some legislators who actually have a philosophical position in favor of school choice," Gaetz said. "If there were no lobbyists, if there was no evil in the world, they still would believe that children ought to have choices and families ought to have options."
But the money and influence are hard to ignore.
Kirtley, who helped craft the original voucher legislation in 2001 and is chairman of the non-profit organization that runs Florida's voucher program, personally spent $112,500 in campaign contributions in the current election cycle, according to the state Division of Elections.
Of that, $50,000 and $25,000 went to the soft-money committees controlled by Gov. Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, respectively. Smaller donations went to both Democratic and Republican candidates.
In addition, Kirtley's political committee, the Florida Federation for Children, has channeled more than $2.3 million into political advertisements and direct mail to help favored candidates since 2010.
The Florida Federation for Children has been "heavily involved in Democratic primaries, where there are legislators who have supported their constituents' desires for parental choice in education," Kirtley said.
"We also have been involved in Republican primaries, but fewer, since there is usually a consensus among those candidates about educational choice," he said. "If there is a contrast either way in a general election, we will be involved there as well."
The Florida Chamber of Commerce has been another strong advocate for the proposed expansion, said David Hart, the organization's executive vice president. "Many of our member companies around the state support this program and have made pretty generous contributions toward supporting scholarships," he said.
The chamber spends thousands of dollars on political advertisements and direct mail pieces. But because the organization advocates for a variety of issues, it is virtually impossible to track how much of that spending is related to tax credit scholarships.
Other influential groups that have lined up in support include Americans for Prosperity, the Foundation for Florida's Future, the James Madison Institute and StudentsFirst.
Despite all of the Tallahassee heavyweights, Gaetz said the most effective advocates have been scholarship students and their parents. He recalled a group of rabbis and Jewish parents who had recently come to his office discuss the importance of vouchers in their community.
On Wednesday, a group of more than 200 pastors known as the Black Alliance for Educational Options took out an advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat making the case for expansion.
The bill does have its opponents: the Florida Education Association, the Florida School Boards Association, and several parent groups, to name a few. The FEA is major contributor to mostly Democratic candidates and their committees, and has already raised at least $365,000 for the current election cycle.
"To me, it looks like a concerted effort to allow religious schools to receive public dollars," said Kathleen Oropeza, an Orlando mom and co-founder of the group Fund Education Now.
Mindy Gould, the legislative chair for the Florida PTA, said her organization plans to fight the proposed expansion, because it "takes taxpayer dollars away from our public schools."
But Gould conceded that the PTA did not have the same kind of resources as some groups supporting the bill.
"We know that we have our work cut out for us," she said.
Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.