TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The House on Wednesday stripped a key component of a measure expanding the state's de facto voucher system, but swatted away Democrats' attempts to make other changes to the bill, setting up a vote as soon as Friday.
Even with that vote, though, the odds of passing the legislation this year remain slim. In a sign of how far apart the House and Senate remain on school choice, a Senate committee Wednesday further watered down an already significantly weakened charter-school bill before approving it.
In an effort to appease the Senate on the vouchers issue, the House removed a provision that would have boosted the essentially automatic increase in fundraising for the voucher program by $30 million a year over the next five years. The voucher system, technically called the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, provides tax breaks to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that pay for low-income children to go to private schools.
"I think what we're trying to do is make a good-faith effort with the Senate to send a bill over that we believe they can pass," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "This bill still gives a lot of families, thousands of families, an opportunity to take advantage of the scholarship program."
The legislation (HB 7167) would still expand eligibility for the program by allowing middle-class Floridians to qualify. A family of four earning up to $62,010 a year would be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit.
The value of each individual scholarship would also rise. Weatherford said that, by scaling back the legislation, House leaders hoped that Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, would drop his insistence that any growth in the program be paired with a requirement that students receiving scholarships take the state's annual high-stakes tests.
"Without an expansion, we don't see why the Senate would want to create a unified test," Weatherford said.
In a potentially ominous sign, Rep. Matt Gaetz --- the Senate president's son --- was one of two House Republicans to vote for a Democratic amendment that would have required private schools that accept vouchers to administer state tests, instead of being able to use national exams, and receive school grades from the Florida Department of Education.
Critics say the fact that public school and voucher students take different tests makes it difficult to figure out whether the private schools are improving student learning.
"This amendment would provide more information for everyone, including parents, if we actually compared apples to apples, and give us and the taxpayers assurance that their tax dollars are going towards providing a quality education for each and every child," said Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland.
Supporters of the program counter that private schools faced a different kind of accountability.
"The greatest accountability measure that a parent or a family has when it comes to these schools is the decision to leave that school and find a better option for their child, which currently does not exist in our public school system," said Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah. "If we are providing the option for families, why would we want to make it look exactly like the rest of the schools?"
That amendment was part of a series of Democratic attempts to change the bill, all of which were defeated on nearly party-line votes. Democrats have worked to hold their caucus together in opposition to this year's voucher bill, a difference from past sessions, when legislation benefiting the program has enjoyed broad, bipartisan support.
House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said Wednesday that the caucus was maintaining a formal position against the bill, despite the fact that the fundraising increase and an earlier provision that would have allowed retailers to divert sales taxes to the program have both been dropped.
Thurston said Democrat still want a testing provision in the bill.
"Basically, if you're going to use taxpayer money, then let's show that it's working," he said.
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