State Politics

Florida's private-school voucher haul getting bigger

TALLAHASSEE — With bipartisan backing, Gov. Charlie Crist ushered in the most sweeping expansion of private-school vouchers in Florida history on Thursday and revived a long-festering question:

Where does it end?

Senate Bill 2126, which Crist signed into law, is expected to significantly ramp up the number of students using tax-credit vouchers, which are limited to low-income families. There are 27,700 students in the program now. But if current growth trends continue, 70,000 could be in the program by 2015.

State Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, is one of the Democrats who has yet to vote in support of the voucher program. He says he can’t give his backing without clear proof that the vouchers do not hurt the public school system financially.

Still, Kiar said he tries not to say too much negative about the program, because “it is undeniable it has helped thousands of kids.”

He added: “It feels like if you vilify this program, you are vilifying the kids.”

Alarmed by the potential growth, critics fear that the day lawmakers propose vouchers for all is closer than ever.

“I truly think that’s the goal,” said Janet Clark, chair of the Pinellas school board. “Every incremental foothold that voucher supporters get is a victory for them. You give them an inch and they’re going to take another inch.”

Supporters of Florida’s two voucher programs, which are limited to disabled and high-poverty students, say that isn’t likely. Doing so could invite a lawsuit like the one that sunk the state’s first voucher program in 2006, they say. And it would jeopardize what has become an increasingly bipartisan effort.

“People think we have good thing going and don’t want to mess with it,” said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the bill’s lead House sponsor.

But, Weatherford added, it’s likely that voucher supporters will keep pushing for more. And, he said, if given the chance, “I would love to expand it to everybody.”

SB 2126 is the latest milestone in Florida’s 11-year voucher war.

It significantly hikes the value of a tax-credit voucher, which is funded by corporate donations and available only to students whose family incomes qualify them for free or reduced-price lunch.

Tax-credit vouchers are now worth $3,950 each. But under SB 2126, the value will rise over several years until it reaches 80 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding rate. At the current rate of $6,866, the voucher amount would grow to $5,492, putting the cost of private school in reach for more low-income families.

The bill offers more incentives to corporations to fund the program and essentially removes a cap on how much they can collectively give. It also includes accountability measures — which critics deem too weak — such as disclosure of standardized test scores for voucher students at schools that have at least 30 such recipients.

The reaction from critics was swift.

“It’s gone too far,” said Pinellas school board member Linda Lerner, who was among the plaintiffs in the successful effort to overturn Opportunity Scholarships, which were available to students in some F-rated schools. “It’s time to get legal opinion about a legal challenge.”

With little marketing, the number of students using tax-credit vouchers has grown an average of 22 percent a year for five years, said Jon East, spokesman for Step Up for Students, the Tampa-based outfit that provides the scholarships.

“Our sense is, the demand is there,” East said.