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Florida House scales back school vouchers plan

A wide-ranging school choice bill was stripped down before passing a key subcommittee Tuesday, but the shape of the final legislation is still in flux as it nears the House floor.

The proposal (HB 15), filed by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, began the day as a bill that would touch the state’s three major school-choice programs.

But after a pair of amendments offered by Sullivan, the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee narrowed the bill to a proposal that would increase funding available to students under the state’s de facto voucher program.

RELATED: Complete Florida Legislature coverage

The bill passed the subcommittee on a 12-3 vote after little debate.

But even as the measure was whittled down, Sullivan suggested that at least some of the provisions — particularly those related to the “Gardiner scholarships” aimed at helping parents pay for education services for children with disabilities — would return.

“It’s my intent at the next (committee) stop for the bill to reinstate the good policies in the Gardiner scholarship program that will make the administration of the program more efficient and effective for all program participants,” Sullivan told the panel.

Sullivan said she was trying to make the bill revenue-neutral for the subcommittee vote as she works through some language on the measure.

The part of the bill left standing after Tuesday would increase payments to private schools for students enrolled in the voucher-like Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Under the program, businesses can receive tax credits for donating money to organizations that, in turn, provide scholarships for children to attend private schools.

If the bill is ultimately approved, payments for children in private elementary schools would be as much as 88 percent of the public school per-student funding amount. It would be 92 percent for children in middle school and 96 percent for those in high school.

Maximum awards under the program now amount to 82 percent of the per-student funding for public schools.

The discarded changes to the Gardiner scholarship included measures that would increase spending on the program to $200 million, make students with a wider range of conditions eligible and allow the scholarships to be used to pay for more services, including therapies involving music, art and horsemanship.

A House budget proposal unveiled Tuesday would allocate $73.3 million for the Gardiner scholarships.

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