Bill expanding Florida school vouchers heads to Gov. Scott

More sweeping changes are headed toward Florida’s public schools, including the use of sales-tax credits to help students attend private schools.

In a 20-17 vote Monday, the Senate backed a bill (HB 7055) that has been a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and includes dozens of changes for the state’s 67 school districts. Hours later, the House gave final approval in a 74-39 vote, sending the measure to Gov. Rick Scott.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

Corcoran came onto the House floor after the final vote, hugging some of his top lieutenants in celebration.

House leaders have pushed the bill to expand school choice, including the promotion of charter schools and the use of publicly funded vouchers to send students to private schools.

The most significant change may be the addition of two new voucher-like programs that would be funded by sales-tax credits. Previously, such programs relied on corporate income-tax credits and general revenue.

One measure would provide “hope scholarships,” which would offer aid for public-school students who are bullied or otherwise face harassment to transfer to private schools. The program could provide up to $40 million in scholarships annually. It would be funded by motorists who designate up to $105 that they would otherwise pay in sales taxes on vehicle purchases.

Another new voucher program would bolster the existing Gardiner scholarships, which provide aid to disabled students, and could be used to expand the longstanding Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

The program would be funded by allowing businesses and others who lease commercial property to choose to have the sales taxes they pay on the leases go to the Gardiner and tax-credit scholarships instead of to state government. It amount of the lease sales tax that could be designated for the education vouchers would be capped at $57.5 million per year.

A third new voucher program would provide reading scholarships, which can be used for private services like tutoring, for struggling readers in the third through fifth grades. It would be funded with $9.7 million in general revenue.

The voucher expansion drew strong opposition from Democrats, with 13 of the 15 Senate Democrats voting against the bill. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, voted for the bill, and Sen. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, failed to cast a vote in time.

Four Republicans, Sens. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, Dana Young of Tampa, Denise Grimsley of Sebring and Dorothy Hukill of Port Orange, joined 13 Democrats in opposing the bill.

“Why are we expanding these vouchers, while we’re starving our public schools? It’s insanity. And it’s patently unfair,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who oversees public school funding in the Senate, rejected the argument that lawmakers were shortchanging the public-system, noting lawmakers are moving toward agreement on a new state budget that would provide $21 billion for the schools.

“That’s a huge amount of dollars. We are not starving the schools. We are doing the best we can for our educational system,” she said.

Passidomo also defended the new hope scholarships, saying the program would help students who are bullied in school.

“Why not let them move? Why not give them a fresh start?” she asked.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, renewed his opposition to a provision in the bill that could force teachers’ unions to disband if their membership falls below 50 percent of the employees they represent in the collective-bargaining process.

He said the measure, which is aimed specifically at “instructional personnel,” would “slap the teachers of Florida in the face.”

Lee, a former Senate president, also urged senators to “stand up for the sovereignty” of the Senate and reject the measure.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, rejected the notion that the bill was largely the work of House leaders, noting the numerous provisions from the Senate that would provide more educational “flexibility” to students and their families, including the hope scholarships.

“That’s the core of educational choice,” Stargel said. “This is not something that is being forced upon me. I don’t in any way feel bullied by the House.”

The bill had to go back to the House for a final vote because of some changes made by the Senate. But the Republican-dominated House approved it after rejecting two Democratic amendments.

Other provisions in the bill include:

  • Requiring schools to prominently display the state motto, “In God We Trust.”
  • Overhauling rules governing charter schools, including raising evidentiary standards used by school boards in terminating charter contracts.
  • Allowing charter schools the same access to surplus property as traditional public schools.
  • Providing more flexibility in construction standards for school projects.
  • Lifting a requirement that home-school students provide their own instructional material when they participate in “dual enrollment” programs at state colleges or other institutions.
  • Exempting students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County from taking statewide assessments this year and retaining the school’s “A” rating. A mass shooting last month at the school killed 17 people.

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