1. The Education Gradebook

Voucher expansion bill advances

Published Jan. 9, 2012

Our colleagues at The Gradebook report:

Not surprisingly, a bill aimed at increasing the cap for Florida's corporate tax credit scholarship program passed its first Senate committee on Monday along partisan lines.

Sponsor Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, cast the effort as one to provide better educational options to the state's most financially needy students. The program offers low-income students vouchers to private schools.

"The intent is to serve asbolutely the most needy children in our communities," Benacquisto said, criticizing those who labeled the program as vouchers.

She noted that the scholarships help those students while also leaving about 32 percent of the per-student funding behind for other school needs.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, challenged her assumption that the money goes to the public schools. He took pains to point out that he found the scholarship program beneficial to many students. At the same time, though, he suggested some of the schools the students attend are not of high quality.

That may be true of public schools as well, he acknowledged. But the state's accountability program points that out and focuses improvement plans at those schools. The question, Montford suggested, is why not hold the private schools receiving state funding to the same standard?

"Would you consider requiring those schools to take the FCAT?" he asked. "If it's good for the public schools, why not these? ... What's wrong with holding those schools to a high level of accountability and a high level of transparency?"

Benacquisto pointed out that current state law does not allow the private schools to administer the FCAT. She suggested that a change to the law, if offered, might be welcomed. The bill next heads to the Senate budget committee. A similar House bill has been assigned to three House committees.

Jeff Solochek, Times Staff Writer