Fla. House keeps pushing major voucher expansion

Associated PressMarch 29, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- Backers of a Florida program that helps low-income children attend private schools, many of them religious, are trying a second time to move ahead a bill that would authorize a major expansion of the program.

Just last week it appeared that private school voucher legislation was dead for the Legislature's 60-day session after the Senate sponsor withdrew his bill. But Friday a state House committee voted along party lines for a revamped version intended to win support from Senate Republicans.

"There is a pent-up demand for that program, a potential demand in the future, and we are going to allow for that demand be met," Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, told reporters after the 8-4 vote by the House Education Appropriations subcommittee.

This time House Republicans included the expansion of the voucher program in an education bill that also would expand a separate program that aids disabled children. The Senate is advancing a similar bill to help parents of disabled children get ad

ditional services.

Nearly 60,000 students from low-income families attend private schools as a result of the voucher program, which hands out state tax credits to businesses that pay for the vouchers. State figures show that more than 80 percent of the schools participating are religious.

Organizations that run the program estimate as many 25,000 additional students are trying to get into the program now, although at one point Fresen contended that as many as 100,000 students want to enroll in it.

The bill would expand the nearly $300 million program in several ways, including removing some eligibility restrictions, increasing the money available and, starting in 2016, offering partial scholarships to families who earn more than $60,000 a year. U.S. Census data estimates that the 2012 median household income in the state was just more than $47,000.

But the latest House version does not include a testing requirement for students receiving vouchers, or "tax credit scholarships" as they are also called.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Friday that the Senate is "willing to listen" to the latest House proposal but said a testing requirement needs to be part of the bill.

Gaetz stressed that he is not insisting that students at the private schools take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is on the verge of being phased out to a new test. But he said it has to be a "common assessment" that will "provide an accurate report to parents as to where their children stand compared to other children in other schools."

"The program has grown to a place where it is no longer an experiment," Gaetz said. "It is no longer a pilot. It is an accepted way for families to exercise choice in education."

House Democrats on Friday brought up similar arguments about a testing requirement. Rep. Karen Castor Dentel argued that some parents are given a "sales pitch" to move their kids to a school where they are given good grades but then return to public schools, where they are farther behind.

"It is our legislative responsibility to use tax dollars to make sure children are learning," the Maitland Democrat said. "Here you are expanding a system that has little to no oversight."

Fresen and other Republicans pointed out that schools that accept vouchers do standardized test -- just not the same ones as public schools. They argued that parents should have a chance to get the "very best educational opportunity they can" for their children.

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