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 firstname.lastname@example.org.