TALLAHASSEE – A plan to further expand Florida’s school-voucher program on Wednesday was stripped of the actual “expansion” in the cap on how much tax money could be used to support low-income students in private schools.
But the larger House bill, HB 7167, still includes language increasing the income levels allowed for students to utilize the voucher system, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, in order to keep its enrollment growing.
After Senate Republicans declared the bill on life-support, House Republicans had salvaged the push to ramp up the "cap" for corporations funding vouchers in exchange for tax credits by merging it with a "learning-account" bill for parents of disabled children.
The bill would have allowed the $286.2 million cap on tax credits for companies sponsoring the vouchers to climb by $30 million more per year over what the law already allows – which is already set to grow to nearly $900 million by 2019. The program currently has 51,000 students enrolled and attending private, sometimes religious schools. But the extra $20 million annual cap increase was stripped on the House floor Wednesday.
The bill still contains language that allows families with higher incomes to qualify for partial scholarships – up to 260 percent of poverty, or households of four making $62,000 a year.
And Republicans beat back an amendment favored by the Senate -- and offered by Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland -- to require that voucher students take the same education accountability testing as public-school peers. Voucher students currently do take standardized tests, just not the same FCAT test public students have taken.
Dentel, a teacher with a doctorate in education, said she had frequently seen students return from private schools further behind than before they left.
“It appears the point of these two different standards is to avoid direct comparisons,” she said.
“This accountability system relies on parents saying we’re happy … We don’t know what they’re being taught and it seems like the state doesn’t care.”
But Republicans countered that the narrative of voucher students not being tested was a “myth” and the Senate solution wouldn’t work.
“All students that are in these schools are not scholarship students. Scholarship students are tested every year,” said Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah. “It would be impossible to grade a school based on just a handful of students.”
The Dentel amendment failed, 44-66.
One Republican who broke ranks and voted for the testing was Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, the son of Senate President Don Gaetz, who has said his chamber won’t pass a voucher expansion without tougher accountability measures for students.
The full House is slated to pass the voucher bill on Friday.