In a year when money for public schools is likely to be cut, a coalition of Republican and Democratic lawmakers want to dramatically expand the number of children who get private-school vouchers.
The legislation, which would apply to a statewide program aimed at low-income
families, would also increase the amount that vouchers are worth and would allow
the voucher amount to grow each year in the future.
There are now roughly 20,000 children enrolled statewide, and the legislation
would grow the number by 5,000 children a year for the next five years. Roughly one quarter of the students now enrolled in the corporate tax credit scholarship program are from Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
''This is a program that truly provides choice to families who otherwise
would not have a choice,'' said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and
chairman of the Senate pre-K-12 committee who is sponsoring the bill.
But the legislation has been denounced by Florida's teachers' union and there
are lingering questions about whether the program could sustain a legal
challenge. The state's highest court struck down a separate private-school
voucher program in 2006.
''It's going to be really difficult for us to support any expansion in
corporate vouchers in an environment where the Legislature and state are having
trouble properly financing schools,'' said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the
Florida Education Association.
State lawmakers are already poised to cut more than $300 million from
education in early March and more cuts could come by May. Gaetz, however,
counters that vouchers could wind up saving the state money -- a point echoed in
a 2007 analysis done by the Collins Center for Public Policy. The argument is
that it's cheaper to hand out a $3,750 private-school voucher than have the
state pay $7,000 for each student in a public school.
Pudlow, however, said certain school expenses will continue no matter the
size of a class.
''The school is going to still be there, the lights will still be on and the
buses will still roll,'' he said.
Corporations earn a credit on their state income tax bills if they provide
money to organizations that provide a voucher. Only children who qualify for
reduced or free lunch are eligible for what are called ``corporate tax credit
The state now sets aside $88 million for tax credits for the program. Under
the bill, that amount would climb to $258 million by 2012. The maximum voucher
would grow to $4,500 in the fall and then would rise in the future if public
school spending grows.
Past legislative battles over private-school vouchers have split Democrats
and Republicans, although a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats
defeated a proposed constitutional amendment on vouchers in 2006. Fifteen senators including the next Senate Democratic Leader are supporting
the bill, which also has bipartisan support in the House as well. Gov. Charlie Crist also has been supportive of the
existing corporate voucher program.
John Kirtley, president of the Florida School Choice Fund, said that there has been a push to have parents in the program meet with legislators to advocate for the expansion. "We've been working hard to connect constituents,'' he said. "Forty percent of the families are African-American and 30 percent are Hispanic. They largely vote Democrat. It's becoming more of a bipartisan issue."
Not all Democrats agree. House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber criticized the legislation as "idealogical pork" that should not be considered during a lean budget year.