TALLAHASSEE — Democrats and Republicans clashed Wednesday over a proposal that would expand the state's school voucher program and create another voucher-like program for children with special needs.
Democrats made their concerns known by proposing a series of "unfriendly" amendments, one of which would have required students in the voucher program to take the state tests. But each was rejected by the Republican-led chamber, and the bill advanced toward a final vote.
Despite the opposition, House Speaker Will Weatherford said he felt "very good about the bill's chances."
"I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't see some bipartisanship on it (when the House votes on the bill) on Friday," Weatherford said. "But at the end of the day, we are trying to expand opportunities for kids. This bill will give more choices to more families and more students, and we think that's a great thing."
Earlier in the day, a Senate panel took a different approach to school choice, watering down a proposal that would create a more favorable environment for charter school growth.
The original 39-page bill (SB 1528) would have stripped school systems of their power to negotiate contracts with privately managed charter schools by mandating the use of a standard contract. It also would have required districts to share their unused buildings with charter school operators.
The proposal in the Senate is now two pages, and does little more than clarify that military commanders can establish charter schools on their bases. It passed out of the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee with a unanimous vote.
Senate Education Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, called the initial version "an overreach."
"We do not need a charter school bill every year," said Legg, himself the founder of a charter school in Pasco County. "We have a lot of big issues that require our focus this year."
Charter school advocates, however, vowed to press on, noting that the original provisions are still alive in HB 7083.
They said a standard contract is needed because school districts sometimes use the contracts to impose unfair regulations on charter schools.
"We would like the Legislature to set some boundaries so nonprofit charter school boards can concentrate on educating children — not having food fights with the school district," said Ralph Arza, a former state legislator who represents the Florida Charter School Alliance.
The school choice debate on the House floor Wednesday was far more contentious.
The bill under consideration in the lower chamber (HB 7167) would make changes to the state's school voucher program, also known as the tax credit scholarship program, which provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families. (The scholarships are funded by businesses that receive dollar-for-dollar credits toward their corporate income taxes.)
The House proposal would also create "personal learning scholarship accounts" for children with profound disabilities. Parents would be able to use the money to be reimbursed for private-school tuition, tutoring, educational materials and various types of therapies.
The two measures have been among the most controversial in the Legislature this year.
Senate President Don Gaetz,R-Niceville, said he would not consider a voucher bill unless voucher students were required to take the state standardized tests. When the House refused to add that language, the Senate spiked its version of the proposal, nearly killing its chances of becoming law.
House leaders kept the bill in play by combining it with the personal-learning-account proposal.
The combined bill omitted a hotly debated provision that would have allowed the voucher program to offer sales-tax credits to donors. And on Wednesday, Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, removed language that would have allowed the cap on credits to grow faster than allowed under current law.
The bill would still remove some of the barriers to participating in the program, create partial scholarship for higher-income families, and increase the maximum per-student scholarship beginning in 2016.
House Democrats, who have taken a formal position against the bill, still had problems — and offered some suggested changes of their own.
House Republicans batted down a proposed amendment by Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, that would have required voucher students to take the state exams.
Their reasoning: Scholarship students are already required to take the national norm-referenced exams like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
Republicans refused other amendments requiring participating schools to hire certified teachers and teach the state-approved curriculum.
Also rejected: an amendment by Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, requiring organizations that manage taxpayer-funded scholarships to be subject to state public records laws.
The bill that moved forward expands access to the program by removing some of the barriers to participating and creating partial scholarships for higher-income families. It also increases the amount each scholarship pays in 2016.
Even if the bill wins the support of the House, its fate is uncertain in the Senate.
Gaetz has said he is willing to consider the proposal, but only if it includes the testing provision.
Weatherford is not convinced testing will be an issue.
"Our bill does not expand the cap (on tax credits)," he said. "Without an expansion, we don't see why the Senate would want to create a unified test."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.