A bill combining the proposed expansion of the school voucher program and the creation of education savings accounts for special-needs students moved forward on Friday, winning the support of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, called the vote "an important step toward providing more Florida students with more opportunities to receive a quality education."
"This scholarship program has allowed tens thousands of students to rise to their full potential, and more opportunities will mean a brighter future for more students," Fresen said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the Senate as we continue to make the expansion of school choice for Florida's families a priority."
Fresen said the bill could be heard on the floor as early as next week.
Friday's party-lines vote did two things. First, it set the stage for a bitter partisan battle in House.
"There is no secret that our minority caucus did take a position to oppose this bill," said ranking Democratic member Rep. Dwayne Taylor, of Daytona Beach. "They only take those types of positions when they see troubling bills that they have some major concerns. This was one of them."
Taylor acknowledged that some Democrats had supported the program in the past. But he said the proposed expansion was too much, especially without a provision requiring students in the program to take the state exams.
The vote also turned up the pressure on the Senate to take another look at the voucher language. Recall that Sen. Bill Galvano withdrew a similar proposal last week, saying there was not enough time to develop solid accountability language.
Friday's hearing brought out strong opinions from members of the committee.
Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, raised questions about accountability in the private schools participating in the voucher program. "We still don't know what is going on in private schools that accept public dollars," she said.
She also took issue with the House strategy to combine the voucher bill with the education savings account bill.
"I think putting these two voucher programs together is simply a Hail Mary," she said.
But Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said lawmakers should focus on the children.
"I know there are many moms and dads in Florida who feel like their needs for their children are not being met, and they become frustrated with the bureaucracy that they meet in these public school institutions," she said. "Our goal today is not to save the public school institutions. Our goal today is not to protect the school enrollment. Our job today, members, is to ensure that Florida students get the very best education opportunities that they can. Period."