Florida lawmakers have school vouchers on their minds

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 5, 2014 

If the first day of session was any indication, school vouchers will be a hot topic over the next 60 days.

In their opening remarks to their respective chambers, both House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz pushed for a dramatic expansion of the the state's tax credit scholarship program.

"There are 60,000 kids who are receiving scholarships today, primarily minority and overwhelmingly low-income," Weatherford said. "And there are tens of thousands more whose parents are longing to send them to the school of their choice. Let us agree not to fight each other and instead fight for them. Let us expand the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship."

Gaetz made a similar case to the Senate, while also asking his colleagues to consider a new testing requirement.

"The performance of Tax Credit Scholarship students should be assessed just like the performance of any other child," Gaetz said. "Why? Because testing is not just about score-carding. It is about measuring academic progress so schools and teachers can customize instruction to meet individual students' needs, so parents will know how their children are really doing, so taxpayers can be sure how their money is used."

Later, the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee discussed of another kind of voucher program: "personalized accounts for learning."

The program would create state-funded accounts for children with special needs.The money (roughly the amount of a McKay scholarship) could be used for tuition at private schools, tutoring, learning materials, or services such as applied behavior analysis, speech-language pathology and physical therapy.

Parents would choose how to spend the money, and be reimbursed by the state.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has already introduced the idea in the Senate (SB 1512).

The House is moving more slowly. The Choice and Innovation Subcommittee held a workshop on the concept Tuesday.

The strategy isn’t a surprise. Chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, has held workshops and taken public testimony on other high-profile bills before introducing formal proposals.

Bileca said the idea was worth considering because it will give parents of special-needs children more flexibility. "One of the things you see is how much these families struggle," Bileca said. "They know what their child needs."

But some of the Democrats on the panel had concerns with the idea, particularly if it would apply to gifted children. (Florida puts both gifted programs and programs for children with disabilities under the umbrella of Exception Student Education.)

Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, said he worried the framework could be too broad.

"The devil will be in the details in determining which students really need it," Saunders said.

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