Thursday, February 22, 2018
Education

House Speaker Will Weatherford: Expand school vouchers

TALLAHASSEE — If Florida's controversial school voucher program needed a powerful ally in Tallahassee this year, it found one: House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is building support for a proposed expansion of the tax credit scholarship program, which provides private-school scholarships to about 60,000 low-income children in Florida.

The proposal would enable corporate donors to earn dollar-for-dollar sales tax credits in exchange for contributions to the scholarship program. (Donors can currently earn credits toward their corporate income taxes, as well as their insurance premium and alcoholic beverage excise taxes.) It also would create new partial scholarships for participating students whose families suddenly earn too much money to qualify.

But Weatherford may have to agree to radical changes to the program — including a proposed requirement that scholarship students take standardized tests.

"For a bill to pass the Senate, an assessment will be a prerequisite," Senate President Don Gaetz said Friday.

The tax credit scholarship program was founded in 2002. Despite a steady growth in participation, it has been a flash point for teachers unions and public-school supporters, who say taxpayer dollars should be used to fund local school systems.

This year, each scholarship is worth $4,880. To qualify, a family of four has to earn less than $44,000 in annual income.

Weatherford wants to increase the limit on the tax credits available to corporate donors. The cap is currently $286 million, and grows annually.

He said his goal is to completely eliminate the waiting list over "the next couple of years."

That would require about 50,000 new scholarships, said Doug Tuthill of the nonprofit Step Up for Students, which administers the scholarships. "We're not so naive to think we are capable of dealing with all of the inequality that impoverished people face," Tuthill said. "But if we can allow more people to have more opportunities, that's a good thing."

Weatherford is recommending sales tax credits be made available because the sales tax provides "a bigger revenue source."

The partial scholarships, he said, would be available to students who already participate in the program but become ineligible because their parents received better-paying jobs.

"We've seen a lot of people earn their way out of the scholarship, and then they are forced to go back to public school," he said.

Other provisions would place new financial reporting requirements on the nonprofits that manage the scholarships.

Gaetz has long been a supporter of the voucher program. The former Okaloosa County schools superintendent sponsored past legislation to raise the cap on tax credits, he said.

But he is adamant about the testing requirement.

"As a parent, I would always want to know how my child is doing on the standards relative to other children," he said. "Therefore, it just seems like the right time to have the same or similar assessments apply to the children in the tax credit scholarship program, as well as those who are in traditional neighborhood schools."

Tuthill says about 400 schools in the Step Up for Students network have expressed interest in the new state assessments. He hesitates to commit, though, because the state Board of Education has not yet selected a standardized exam to test the new Florida Standards.

Tuthill also worries the schools won't have the computers and Internet capacity needed to administer the assessments.

Expect the proposal to be controversial, even if the testing provision makes the cut.

Florida PTA legislative chair Mindy Gould said Gaetz's proposed requirements would help ease some of the PTA's concerns about the voucher program.

"But we're still opposed to taking dollars away from our public schools," she said.

The bill would also meet strong opposition from the Florida Education Association, the state teachers' union.

"Our legislators have an obligation to fund public schools under the state Constitution," said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy. "Once they do that, they can start playing with the private schools."

Weatherford is prepared for the fight. "Anybody who says this is a bad program or it isn't working can go speak to the 60,000 kids who are predominantly minority, who are overwhelmingly low income, and who clearly like the program," he said.

Kathleen McGrory can be reached at [email protected]

Comments
After Parkland, another plea for rumor control: ‘This is not a joke’ (w/video)

After Parkland, another plea for rumor control: ‘This is not a joke’ (w/video)

ST. PETERSBURG — The mayor and the police chief came to Northeast High on Thursday to warn students about the dangers of circulating rumors of school safety threats on social media.While they were there, one of those unfounded rumors popped up on Fac...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Collards, ribs and Kool-Aid: Black History Month menu at NYU stirs controversy

Collards, ribs and Kool-Aid: Black History Month menu at NYU stirs controversy

NEW YORK — On Tuesday, a dining hall at New York University advertised a special meal in honor of Black History Month. On the menu? Barbecue ribs, cornbread, collard greens, and two beverages with racist connotations: Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored...
Published: 02/22/18
Arming teachers? Some officials like the idea, but many educators don’t (w/video)

Arming teachers? Some officials like the idea, but many educators don’t (w/video)

With high school students from Parkland in the Capitol this week advocating for gun control, the bill that would have allowed superintendents and principals to designate trained employees who can carry concealed weapons at school didn’t get heard as ...
Updated: 9 hours ago
How will Douglas High students go back to class? There’s now a plan in place.

How will Douglas High students go back to class? There’s now a plan in place.

When students return to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High for the first time next Tuesday, they will be greeted by additional counselors and law enforcement."There will be a plethora of counselors and services at the school," Broward Schools Superintende...
Published: 02/21/18
School shooter may get inheritance — and be ordered to spend it on legal bills

School shooter may get inheritance — and be ordered to spend it on legal bills

Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz appears to have been in line for a sizable inheritance. He’ll never get to spend it — except perhaps on defense attorneys.The amount could be enough to compel a judge to order him to hire a private lawyer, rather ...
Published: 02/21/18
Pasco County schools, dealing with threats, warn students of consequences

Pasco County schools, dealing with threats, warn students of consequences

DADE CITY — A Pasco High School student was taken into custody Tuesday amid accusations of threatening violence against the school. The campus was not at risk, school district officials said. But they made clear they take each threat seriously, and t...
Published: 02/21/18
Officers: When an active shooter attacks, survive by taking action

Officers: When an active shooter attacks, survive by taking action

LARGO — An Illinois teacher used confrontation. A campus safety monitor in Seattle attacked with pepper spray and physical force. An assistant football coach in Indiana shouted as he chased him into the woods.All were civilians who took down an activ...
Published: 02/20/18
Under a new law, some public schools will be managed by companies. Pinellas is getting ready

Under a new law, some public schools will be managed by companies. Pinellas is getting ready

LARGO — Pinellas County School Board members are not happy about the prospect of having to hand over academic control at three struggling schools to a private company, and paying the firm up to $2 million on top of it. But that’s the course they must...
Published: 02/20/18
Lawsuit accuses FSU fraternity, national chapter of negligence in pledge’s death

Lawsuit accuses FSU fraternity, national chapter of negligence in pledge’s death

The parents of Andrew Coffey, the Florida State University student who died from alcohol poisoning after an apparent hazing episode last year, have sued the national Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity and nine of its members for their son’s death.Coffey, who wa...
Published: 02/20/18
Upset by grade, Robinson High student threatens to shoot up campus, police say

Upset by grade, Robinson High student threatens to shoot up campus, police say

Schools nationwide are on heightened alert in the wake of last week’s fatal shootings in Broward County, and in the Tampa area, that means official warnings about social media posts and more calls for police action.Two Tampa boys, one 15 and one 16, ...
Published: 02/20/18