Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Education

Lawmakers revive, then approve school voucher expansion

TALLAHASSEE — A surprise procedural maneuver Friday helped Florida lawmakers pass one of the most controversial bills of the session.

Both the House and Senate gave final approval to a bill that would expand the school voucher program and create new scholarships for special-needs children.

The proposal will now head to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it.

School choice advocates celebrated bill's passage — an unexpected end to a roller-coaster session.

"The House has made school choice a priority this year for Florida families," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who championed the bill. "With this bill, more kids will have the opportunity to reach their full potential."

Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers' union, said she was disappointed. "The members of FEA are chagrined by the continued march to expand voucher schools that are largely unregulated, don't have to follow the state's academic standards, don't have to hire qualified teachers and don't have to prove to the state that they are using public money wisely," she said.

McCall said it was "especially galling that the voucher expansion was tacked on to an unrelated bill on the final day of the session."

The bill that passed Friday (SB 850) would expand Florida's Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families.

It would not raise the cap on the number of corporate income tax credits available to businesses that help fund the scholarships or allow donors to receive sales tax credits. But it would allow more students to take part in the program by creating partial scholarships for children from higher-income families, and removing some of the barriers to participating.

The proposal also would place new restrictions on Step Up for Students, the nonprofit that manages the voucher program. Step Up for Students would be required to undergo an annual audit from the state Auditor General and would be prohibited from using state dollars for lobbying or political purposes.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the provision was important because Step Up for Students representatives had spoken publicly about the influence they yield in the Capitol.

"I don't think you should use the money that is meant for and is described as scholarships for low-income kids to pay lobbyists and (engage in) political activity," Gaetz said.

What's more, Step Up for Students would be required to report student test scores to Florida State University, which would compile and publish the data.

The final compromise wasn't exactly what Gaetz had wanted; he originally said scholarship students should take the state standardized tests or something similar. But Gaetz said he was satisfied with the new accountability provisions.

A separate part of the bill addresses special needs students.

It would eliminate the special diplomas that are offered as an alternative to standard diplomas, and create "personal learning scholarship accounts" to reimburse the parents of special-needs students for private-school tuition, tutoring and different types of therapies.

The language was important to incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and key to the bill's Senate passage.

The proposed policy sparked one of the most heated debates of the session.

The state PTA, teachers union and school districts had come together to fight the bill, saying state dollars should stay with traditional public schools.

House Democrats voted to take a caucus position against the bill.

But busloads of parents, teachers and children traveled to Tallahassee to urge lawmakers to support school choice.

The policy almost didn't make it through the process.

On Friday, senators were forced to tack the language onto a separate education bill.

The Senate approved the bill in a 29-11 vote. It won the support of all 26 Senate Republicans and three Senate Democrats: Gwen Margolis of Miami; Jeremy Ring of Margate; and Darren Soto of Orlando.

"Public schools should not have a monopoly," Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said in debate. "We have choices in everything else."

The House took up the bill late Friday. It passed largely along party lines.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]

Comments
A closer look at graduation rates. How did your school do?

A closer look at graduation rates. How did your school do?

Updated: 4 minutes ago
9 face hazing charges in death of Florida State fraternity pledge

9 face hazing charges in death of Florida State fraternity pledge

TALLAHASSEE — Nine men are facing hazing charges in connection with the death of a Florida State University fraternity pledge, police said Tuesday. The Tallahassee Police Department said in an emailed release that arrest warrants were signed earlier ...
Updated: 14 minutes ago
In major shift, House bill would turn three USF universities into one

In major shift, House bill would turn three USF universities into one

Separate accreditation has long been a point of pride and a stamp of independence for the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee branches of the University of South Florida.Graduates of those schools frame diplomas bearing the name of their own universi...
Published: 01/16/18
Top Hillsborough teaching honor goes to a Lewis Elementary educator

Top Hillsborough teaching honor goes to a Lewis Elementary educator

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year is a self-described "busy, busy bee" who never tires of exploring new ways to help students learn, even if she has to be creative.At 56, Bonnie Bresnyan also is a mentor for the next generation of s...
Published: 01/16/18
School board member is ‘dumbfounded’ by Times report on Hillsborough substitute teachers

School board member is ‘dumbfounded’ by Times report on Hillsborough substitute teachers

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District should reconsider how it hires substitute teachers, and that conversation should happen publicly, School Board member Lynn Gray said Tuesday.Responding to a Tampa Bay Times article published Sunday , G...
Published: 01/16/18

Pasco class notes for Jan. 19

Theatre/Art/MusicCenter for the Arts at River Ridge, 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey. (727) 774-7382.• The center’s Learn it Live! series presents The Three Little Pigs, at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 24- 25. Pre-K – grade 4. Public show at 11 a.m. Jan. ...
Published: 01/16/18
Bill to sweeten Bright Futures scholarship sails through Senate

Bill to sweeten Bright Futures scholarship sails through Senate

Nearly a decade since the luster on Florida’s signature merit scholarship program began to grow dim, state lawmakers have taken a decisive step toward restoring its appeal. Just three days into the 2018 Legislative session, the Florida Senate ...
Published: 01/11/18
Updated: 01/12/18
Parents vent at school district meeting over fate of Lee Elementary School

Parents vent at school district meeting over fate of Lee Elementary School

TAMPA — Leaders of the Hillsborough County School District tried Thursday to reassure parents they are doing their best for the displaced students of Lee Elementary School, who lost their school in a September fire. To some, it was a hard sell...
Published: 01/11/18
Updated: 01/12/18
UF fraternity suspended until 2021

UF fraternity suspended until 2021

The University of Florida becomes the latest school to suspend a fraternity for alleged incidents involving alcohol and drug use. In December, Heather White, UF’s interim dean of students, sent the university’s chapter of Tau Epsilon Phi...
Published: 01/11/18
Napping, name-calling and stealing: Who’s subbing for your kids’ teachers in Hillsborough?

Napping, name-calling and stealing: Who’s subbing for your kids’ teachers in Hillsborough?

TAMPA — Kenneth Spain told his students at Chamberlain High School that he overcame a pornography addiction when he found Jesus. Pornography and Jesus are both taboo topics for public school teachers, so this became a case for the Hillsborough...
Published: 01/11/18