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Voucher advocates clear another hurdle

The proposed expansion of the state school voucher program cleared another hurdle Tuesday, winning the support of the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee.

The bill (HB 7099) received a favorable vote in the House Finance and Tax Subcommittee earlier this month. Since the proposal was only referred to one committee, it is now eligible for a vote on the House floor.

The voucher bill has sparked one of the most emotional debates of the 2014 session. On Monday, pastors, parents, teachers and schoolchildren packed into a meeting room to share their perspective on the expansion.

There were so many speakers that Chairman Michael Bileca had to cut some of the testimony short.

Lawmakers approved the measure in a party-line vote.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, tried adding language that would have required the state to "assist private schools in the administration of the statewide standardized assessments." But it was shot down by Republicans on the panel, who have said that a testing requirement is unnecessary.

(Senate President Don Gaetz has said he will not consider the proposal in the Senate without a state testing requirement. Students who are currently in the program must take some form of standardized assessment, but it doesn't have to be the state exam.)

Meanwhile, the non-profit that runs the voucher program came under fire Tuesday for a 2011 video that was posted to YouTube.

In the video, Step Up for Students President Doug Tuthill outlined the organization's political strategy. He talked about the role of an affiliated political committee.

"One of the primary reasons we’ve been so successful we spend about $1 million every other cycle in local political races, which in Florida is a lot of money," Tuthill told a group at the University of California, Berkeley. "In House races and Senate races, we’re probably the biggest spender in local races."

Tuthill said he and other proponents "make low-income families the face of the program."

"We put those people in the face of Democrats and say 'How can you deny this parent the right to educate their child in the ways that they need?'" he said.

Tuthill also acknowledged that the program had built up support among black ministers. "The black ministers have really flipped the politicians. That has really brought most of the black and Hispanic politicians over to the program."

Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall said the video showed "the true intentions" of the program's supporters.

"For years they’ve told the public that their advocacy for voucher schools is really all about the students," McCall said in a statement. "This video reveals that it’s all about the money."

But Tuthill said he didn’t consider the video newsworthy.

"I was explaining how the program was able to get political support to grow in Florida," he told the Herald/Times. "It's Politics 101. It's what I did when I was a union president. It's what I did when I was a civil rights organizer. It's what everyone does."