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House gives new life to controversial voucher proposal

Remember that school voucher bill everyone thought was dead?

The proposal was given new life on Wednesday, thanks to a procedural maneuver by a state representative.

Many observers thought the proposed expansion of the school voucher program was off the table after Sen. Bill Galvano withdrew the Senate version of the bill (SB 1620) last week. Without a companion in the upper chamber, the House school voucher bill (HB 7099) stood virtually no chance of becoming law.

But late Wednesday, Rep. Erik Fresen combined the voucher language with a separate bill creating education savings accounts for special-needs children. That bill (HB 1503, now PCB EDAS 14-03) has a counterpart in the Senate (SB 1512), and is thus still in play.

Fresen, R-Miami, said it made sense to combine the proposals.

"The two bills were on separate paths to begin with, but they both fit under the umbrella of school choice," he said. "This bill now covers the entire scope of school choice."

The voucher program, also known as the tax credit scholarship program, provides private-school scholarships to about 60,000 children from low-income families.Its supporters were hoping to more quickly expand the cap on the corporate income tax credits that fund the program. Their goal: to provide scholarships for 50,000 additional children.

The original proposal would have allowed sales tax revenue to help fund the voucher program. It would have also enabled certain students to receive partial scholarships, and removed some of the barriers to children in foster care.

Fresen did not carry the sales tax provision over to the new combined bill.

"It was the most contentious point," he said. "We figured if we were going to revive the bill, we should adjust that part."

Fresen did not add language requiring scholarship students to take the state exams. Senate President Don Gaetz has said a voucher expansion bill will not be heard in the Senate without that provision. But the House has insisted that such a testing requirement is unnecessary and impractical.

Said Fresen: "The House position has always been different from the Senate position. All we were doing was consolidating two [House] proposals dealing with school choice."

Would Fresen consider adding testing language moving forward?

"Everything is on the table," he said. "There is still a lot of time in the session."

PCB EDAS 14-03 will be heard at Friday's House Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting.