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Sides line up for Florida House voucher battle

A bill to revamp and possibly expand Florida's school voucher program heads to the state House floor for debate today.

It remains unclear whether the issue ever will get a full hearing in the Senate, where the original companion bill was withdrawn a month ago and amendments to other measures have gained no traction.

Still, voucher proponents and opponents have mounted PR efforts in advance of the House session.

Step Up For Students, the organization that oversees Florida's tax credit scholarship program, sent reporters a fact sheet Wednesday morning, aiming to stave off what it has considered unfair and inaccurate coverage in the past. Step Up officials also have written numerous opinion pieces for newspapers around the state leading up to the pending vote, in addition to its lobbying efforts and posts on its blog.

Among its facts:

- An amendment by sponsor Rep. Manny Diaz would remove any cap increase in the bill.

- Demand for scholarships remains high, with opened applications up 19,000 from a year ago. (There has been some dispute over whether Step Up For Students retains a waiting list, which is not the same thing as interest or demand for the scholarships.)

- Scholarship students have been tested since 2006. Some take the FCAT, but they are not required to do so. (One of the key reasons the Senate is not taking up this measure is because Senate leaders want scholarship students to take the same accountability tests that students in traditional schools take.)

- The scholarship program does not take money away from traditional schools. The scholarship program pays 72 percent of the regular per-student funding, meaning a savings for the state. (The scholarship is smaller than the FTE, but opponents argue money is still diverted from public schools as students leave.)

- The bill has no effect on sales taxes, as a proposed sales tax credit has been removed.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have sent out a release announcing their efforts to "limit damage to public education" with this bill. In the past, Democrats have been split in their support of the scholarship program. This year, the caucus officially adopted a position against the expansion of the program.

The proposed voucher expansion "undercuts Florida's public education system and the thousands of students it serves," House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) said.

Among the Democrats' amendments:

- Amendment #070355 by Rep. Karen Castor Dentel: Requires private schools that accept voucher students to be subject to the state's assessment testing requirements and school grading system.

- Amendment #668809 by Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed: Requires private schools accepting voucher students to teach a curriculum that is consistent with the curriculum for public schools.

- Amendment #035469 by Rep. Mark Pafford: Requires Scholarship Funding Organizations to be subject to Florida's public records law.

- Amendment #872123 by Rep. Mark Danish: Releases a school district from liability if a child attends a private school under the new voucher program but does not receive the educational services required under his or her Individual Education Plan.

The GOP-dominated House is not considered likely to approve these changes. The House takes to the floor at 11 a.m. Stay tuned.