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Voucher expansion ready for final approval

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The House is poised to pass a wide-ranging education package that would create a new voucher program that would allow thousands of more students across Florida to attend private schools with public dollars.

After a four-hour debate Monday in which Republicans swatted away numerous changes proposed by Democrats, the bill (SB 7070) is ready for a final vote as soon as Tuesday.

The bill, which passed the Senate last week, includes creating the “Family Empowerment Scholarship” program.

This program, the state’s fifth voucher-type program, would allow middle-class families to use taxpayer-funded scholarships to pay for private-school tuition, which could include religious schools.

Financing of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, capped at 18,000 students, would come out of a pot of money that has been reserved almost solely in the past for public-school districts.

Democrats argued that the Family Empowerment Scholarship program would conflict with a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar scholarship program under former Gov. Jeb Bush because the program used public dollars to pay for tuition at private schools.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, proposed numerous failed amendments Monday, including one that would have prevented religious schools from receiving money through the program.

“This bill overtly says that a private school receiving public funds may be sectarian or nonsectarian. Boom! Unconstitutional,” Smith said.

Along with the voucher issue, the bill also would restructure the Best and Brightest teacher-bonus program.

In part, it would remove teachers’ scores on SAT and ACT college-entrance exams as eligibility criteria for bonuses.

Also, the state’s “Schools of Hope” program, which is designed to allow charter schools to operate near “persistently low-performing” traditional public schools, would be expanded by allowing charters to open in federally designated low-income areas.