TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Following a fierce partisan debate where legislators traded barbs and accused each other of hypocrisy, the Florida House on Friday voted in favor of expanding the state's main private school voucher program.
The legislation heads to the Florida Senate where skeptical Republicans have already said the bill doesn't do enough to ensure that parents have information they need to compare the private schools participating in the program.
Florida already has a popular voucher program where nearly 60,000 students from low-income families attend private schools. State figures show that more than 80 percent of the schools participating are religious.
The House voted 73-43 for a bill (HB 7167) that would allow more students to become eligible for the program and eventually would open it up to middle-income families by 2016. An existing law already allows the program to grow from its current cap of nearly $300 million, but it places limits on which families can receive the vouchers.
House Republicans defended expanding the program, saying it was time to do something for middle class families.
"The government does not know best and parents should know best where to place their child," said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah. "And we should give them the option."
Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland and a public school teacher, questioned the type of education that children were receiving in the private schools and whether parents were being misled about the quality of the schools involved. She had tried unsuccessfully earlier this week to place a testing requirement on schools accepting the vouchers.
"This bill allows the Florida Legislature to abdicate its responsibility to our children," said Castor Dentel.
House Republicans have scaled back the voucher proposal several times in order to win over support from Senate Republicans during this year's session. They have also combined it with legislation that would expand a separate program that aids disabled children. The Senate is advancing a similar bill to help parents of disabled children get additional services.
But House leaders have refused to consider a request from Senate President Don Gaetz to place additional testing requirements placed on the private schools that would participate.
Those schools have to give standardized tests to their students now but they are not required to use the same tests as public schools. Gaetz said he doesn't want to mandate use of tests like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test but he added that he wants parents to be able to somehow compare the performance of the different schools accepting the vouchers.
"I'm not afraid of reporting the academic results of this excellent program and I don't think anybody should be afraid of it," said Gaetz on Friday.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, maintained that the House will never accept a requirement to force private schools to administer the FCAT or any other test used in public schools. But he said he is willing to look at any counter proposal the Senate adopts.