Florida school voucher bill passes first committee but Republicans disagree on funding source

The package bill, Senate Bill 7070, would also make changes to the teacher bonus program.
[Miami Herald file photo]
[Miami Herald file photo]
Published Mar. 6, 2019|Updated Mar. 6, 2019

It was only the second day of the legislative session, but Tuesday already saw a packed committee room and spirited debate over an education package bill that could be one of the most consequential bills of the 2019 session.

Senate Bill 7070 passed the Senate Education Committee along party lines on Tuesday.

The bill proposes to:

  • create a new school voucher, called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, that would allow general revenue tax dollars to be used for private schools to eliminate the wait-list for the existing scholarship for low-income families
  • change and expand the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program to remove teachers’ SAT and ACT test scores from their eligibility requirements and create new financial awards for teachers and principals based on student performance
  • create a new grant program for schools to have more funding for health care, extra food, social services and other programs for needy students
  • give school districts additional flexibility with how they use locally collected tax dollars to build new buildings
  • ease some of the requirements surrounding teacher certification, such as giving prospective teachers more time to pass a required exam

Allowing general revenue dollars typically set aside for districts to go toward vouchers would be a major change in the way the state views public education. But Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, the chair of the committee, said it’s moving Florida into the future.

“Our duty is to educate the children,” he said. “Our duty is not (dependent on) where they are educated. It is the fact we are providing the resources to be educated for the ultimate goal of providing citizens that are capable and responsible for upholding our republic and this is the way to do it.”

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The biggest surprise of the meeting came from Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, an influential Republican who is second-in-command to Senate President Bill Galvano.

A passionate advocate for the community grant program, he said that he supports the bill, but thinks the new voucher should not be funded out of general revenue. A similar proposal was struck down as unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006, which Simmons said could be a problem for this bill.

“All we have to do is expand that system ... within the corporate tax scholarship umbrella that already exists,” Simmons said. “It’s not essential to take it out of the (per-student allocation).”

Simmons said the state could give corporations tax credits in exchange for them directing their corporate income tax, insurance tax and others to the voucher fund, which is similar to how it is funded now. That way, the dollars would be dedicated to the program before they reach the state’s coffers and are set aside for schools.

Diaz said he is “not adverse” to the idea.

More than 50 teachers, parents and advocates attended the committee to weigh in on the bill. Some parents applauded the new voucher, which is designed to eliminate the wait-list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which grants money to low-income families for private or religious schools.

Giselle Gomez, a mother from Ocala, said she sent her son to a Christian school because she thought it would be more equipped to handle his behavioral issues.

“I’ve been unable to make payments, it’s been really embarrassing,” she said. “I implore the Senate to end the waiting list.”

Scores of teachers also spoke, most of them opposed to giving public money that’s typically set aside for districts instead to these vouchers. Several also said the state needs to go beyond the bonus program and offer raises across the board.

“We cannot bonus our way out of a severe teacher shortage,” said Andrea Cochran, a high school teacher from Port Orange.

Democrats on the committee, voted against the bill but also withdrew their amendments, saying there is still time for the committee to achieve compromise.