Sunday, November 19, 2017
Education

Senate sponsor pulls Florida school voucher bill

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TALLAHASSEE — The Senate sponsor of the school voucher bill withdrew his proposal Thursday, making it unlikely that the measure will pass this year.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he pulled the bill because there wasn't enough time to develop a testing requirement that everybody could agree on.

"I thought it would be better if we took time and vetted it out," Galvano said. "There are a lot of moving pieces this year."

The House and Senate had clashed over requiring voucher recipients to take the state tests. Senate President Don Gaetz said he was unwilling to pass a bill that did not include a strong testing requirement. But House leaders refused to add the language to their proposal.

There is still a slim chance that the Senate could take up the House bill.

"You can never say that the Senate won't take up a House bill," Gaetz said Thursday. "But when the sponsor of a bill asks to have the bill withdrawn from any further consideration by the Senate, that's an indication that the sponsor has changed his mind about the prospects of the bill."

House Speaker Will Weatherford, who had spearheaded the effort in the lower chamber, called Thursday's development "a terrible shame."

"Thousands of children seeking more opportunities for a better life will be denied," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "I cannot see any reason why we'd quit on these kids."

The program, also known as the tax credit scholarship program, provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families.

The scholarships are funded by businesses that receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit in exchange for their donations.

The current cap on tax credits is $286 million, or enough to fund about 60,000 scholarships. That cap is set to grow to $874 million by 2018-19.

This year's legislative proposal (SB 1620/HB 7099) sought to raise the cap more quickly, though the $874 million cap for 2018-19 would not have changed. The bill would also have allowed businesses to claim credits on their sales taxes, enabling more companies to contribute and providing a steadier stream of revenue for the program.

Supporters, including Doug Tuthill, whose nonprofit Step Up for Students manages the scholarship program, said the proposal would have allowed another 50,000 students to participate.

Parents, students and private-school principals spoke passionately in favor of the expansion.

But the bill also had its share of opponents, including the state teachers union, local school boards, the Florida PTA and a number of grass roots parents groups.

"We really saw this as an attack on public education," said Mindy Gould of the PTA.

The testing issue had become a sticking point.

John Kirtley, who helped craft the original voucher legislation in 2001 and is chair of the Step Up board, said it would have been "a very difficult task to quickly remake the academic accountability for this program."

Gaetz said he was disappointed in the outcome.

"I had hoped that we would be able to do two things at the same time: expand the opportunity for low-income families to have more choice in education and at the same time bring financial and academic accountability to this program," Gaetz said. "Apparently we're not going to be able to do that this session, but hope springs eternal."

Tuthill was also disappointed.

"There were some important infrastructure pieces that would have strengthened the program and helped more children," he said.

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican and the House sponsor, said he still planned to pass his version out of the lower chamber.

"We're not giving up on it," he said. "We're going to pass our version and keep moving forward. As far as I know, it is still in play."

Florida Education Association vice president Joanne McCall also acknowledged that the session is far from over.

She said she and other opponents planned to "stay vigilant to make sure that the expansion of this program doesn't pop up in another form."

Times/Herald staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.

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