School voucher expansion faces stiff opposition

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauJune 16, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- Parent and teacher groups are turning the pressure up on Gov. Rick Scott to veto a proposed expansion of the state school voucher program.

Members of the Florida PTA, grassroots parent groups, the Florida Conference of NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the statewide teachers union have launched a campaign against the bill, which they say will drain taxpayer dollars from already cash-strapped public schools.

"We stand united in our opposition to voucher expansion," said Mindy Gould, who oversees legislative affairs for the PTA. "The governor needs to know that."

Scott has not indicated whether he will sign or veto the proposal, though he has been generally supportive of school choice bills. Spokesman John Tupps said the governor's office would review the legislation.

The clock is ticking. The bill (SB 850) arrived on Scott's desk Friday. He has until June 28 to act.

Scott will also have to weigh feedback from private-

school parents and teachers who support the expansion. Hundreds have expressed support for the measure in calls and emails to the governor's office.

What's more, the voucher provision is tied to a separate policy that allows students with profound disabilities to access state dollars for tutoring, educational materials and therapeutic services. The so-called personal learning scholarship accounts are a top priority for the Foundation for Florida's Future, the powerful education think tank founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The voucher program, also known as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, provides private-school scholarships for children from low-income families. The scholarships are funded by businesses, which receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for their donations.

Early this year, Republican lawmakers unveiled a plan to grow the program, by both increasing the cap on tax credits and allowing more children to qualify for scholarships.

A watered-down version of the bill passed on the last day of session, largely along party lines.

Lawmakers did not increase the cap on tax credits. They agreed to increase the amount of the scholarship beginning in 2016-17, allow some children from higher-income families to receive partial scholarships and remove some of the barriers to participating in the program. They also designated an independent research organization to provide annual reports on the program.

The bill's passage on May 2 prompted immediate backlash.

Other groups involved in the campaign against the proposal include the Florida School Boards Association, the League of Women Voters, the Spanish American League Against Discrimination and the Sant Le Haitian Neighborhood Service Center in Miami, according to the PTA.

Over the last month, Scott's office has received at least 1,080 calls and emails in opposition to the bill, records from the Office of Citizen Services show.

Some opponents predicted the voucher bill would be used against Scott in his campaign for reelection.

Eric Dwyer, a professor of foreign language education at Florida International University, said expanding the voucher program would hurt students who are learning English as a second language. He noted that public schools must follow specific guidelines for teaching ESOL students, while private schools don't have to.

Supporters of the bill have also made their voices heard. Over the same time period, Scott's office has received at least 659 calls and emails in support of the bill.

Abul Azad, of Pompano Beach, said the school voucher program enabled two of his sons to attend private school.

"For a family like us [with] a limited income, [it] was like a dream to put our kids into private school," he wrote in an email. "This program made that dream become a reality.".

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