House moves forward with school choice expansion

A bill that would expand two of the state's school-choice programs is heading to the House floor after gaining approval Thursday from the House Education Committee.

The proposal (HB 15), sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, was amended Thursday to add back provisions that would expand the reach of the Gardiner Scholarship program, aimed at helping parents pay for education services for children with disabilities.

The expansion of eligibility for that scholarship was dropped at a previous committee as Sullivan tried to work out language for the bill.

Under the current measure, any student with an individualized education program, or IEP, would be added to the list of those eligible for the scholarship, along with students with hearing and visual impairments and those with rare diseases.

Some lawmakers worried that allowing every student with an IEP to the Gardiner program could squeeze limited dollars and create a waiting list, followed by calls for the Legislature to increase the budget in the future.

"I foresee us having a real problem trying to fund that," said Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City.

But supporters of the amendment said lawmakers should be careful about trying to choose which students had disabilities severe enough to warrant a scholarship.

"We shouldn't be in a position where we're deciding that one disability is more important than another, and picking one parent's need with their student over another," said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah.

The amendment passed on a voice vote.

The bill also would increase payments to private schools for students enrolled in the voucher-like Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

The overall measure was approved unanimously.