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 kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.