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Campaign contributions, powerful groups propel debate over school vouchers

Nearly 200 schoolchildren greeted Senate President Don Gaetz last month when he visited a Catholic school in Pensacola to get a first-hand look at the impact of Florida’s controversial school voucher program.

Gaetz said he left St. John the Evangelist Catholic School convinced that the Florida Legislature should expand the program, which provides private-school scholarships to low-income children.

But the fate of the proposed expansion is not riding on the power of persuasion from students, parents and teachers alone. More powerful political forces are at work in Tallahassee.

Those forces include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and influential think tanks like the conservative James Madison Institute and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future. All have thrown their considerable weight behind the expansion.

And then there is the money. The voucher program’s top supporter, Tampa venture capitalist John Kirtley, controls a political committee in Florida that spent nearly $2.4 million to influence races in 2010 and 2012. He plans to spend at least $1.5 million in 2014, he said.

The efforts have made expanding the voucher program a top priority of this year’s legislative session, which began Tuesday.

Read more here.