Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Education

Voucher bill revived, while immigrant tuition stalls in Senate

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TALLAHASSEE — A Senate panel used a procedural maneuver Tuesday to put a controversial school voucher bill back in play.

But the committee refused to use the same strategy to revive a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates, a bill with major political implications for this year's governor's race.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, tried adding the immigrant tuition language to a higher-education bill by Sen. John Legg (SB 1292).

But Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who supports in-state tuition for undocumented students, determined his amendment was not germane and ruled it out of order.

The ruling was yet another setback for the thousands of undocumented students hoping to pay the same tuition rates as other young adults who grew up in Florida. The original bill (SB 1400) was blocked from moving forward last week.

Gov. Rick Scott said it was "extremely disappointing" that the amendments had not been heard.

"This needs to get to the floor of the Senate," said Scott, a Republican who is hoping to win support from Hispanic voters in the November election.

Latvala, the bill sponsor, said there were still ways to make that happen.

"It's not over," he said.

Hours earlier, the Senate Appropriations Committee allowed a similar maneuver to keep a different bill alive.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, tucked language about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program into a bill addressing special-needs students (SB 1512). The amended proposal passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee by a 14-3 vote.

The new language looks different from the school voucher bill Galvano filed at the beginning of the session. That bill proposed a significant expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship program, which provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families. It was withdrawn after the House and Senate failed to reach consensus on new accountability provisions.

The language Galvano proposed Tuesday did not seek to increase the cap on the corporate income tax credits available to the businesses that fund the scholarships, or allow businesses to receive sales tax credits. It would, however, open up the program to more foster children and remove a requirement that children attend public school for one year before applying for a scholarship.

The amendment also included several new accountability provisions. One would establish a Learning System Institute at Florida State University to conduct annual reports on student performance and year-to-year learning gains.

There was no requirement that scholarship students take the state exams or a similar assessment — a sticking point for Senate President Don Gaetz. But Gaetz later said the amendment Galvano proposed had the potential to pass the Senate.

"Speaker (Will) Weatherford and I jointly committed to expanding school choice through the Tax Credit Scholarship Program," Gaetz said in a statement. "The question we have been working on is how to include meaningful accountability so parents, teachers and the public will be able to assess student performance. I am very pleased the bill passed (Tuesday) accomplishes those objectives and makes this legislation acceptable to the Senate."

Some Democrats disagreed.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, pointed out that it would still be impossible to compare the performance of scholarship students to the performance of students in traditional public schools. "We are also depleting public school funds," she said.

SB 1512 is now ready for a vote on the Senate floor. The proposal also enables the parents of special-needs students to be reimbursed for education-related expenses, and eliminates the special diploma currently available to students with disabilities.

The tuition bill, meanwhile, still faces significant hurdles.

Latvala said he was disappointed that his bill had been subject to different rules than the voucher bill.

"This very morning we put a very significant amendment about corporate scholarships onto a bill that had to do with education for (disabled) students," he said. "It's clear in my mind that amendment would have not been in order had a point of order been raised."

Thrasher, who is part of Scott's campaign, said he was "just doing (his) job" as chair of the rules committee.

But Thrasher hinted at another way for the bill to move forward. He noted that two-thirds of the chamber supports the proposal. That's enough to waive the rules and force a floor vote.

"We've still got eight days in this session," Thrasher said. "We've got a long way to go."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at [email protected]

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