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Senate passes voucher expansion, personal learning accounts

Using a surprise procedural maneuver on the last day of session, the Florida Senate passed a controversial expansion of the school voucher program.

Supporters tried passing the bill Thursday, but Democrats blocked it.

They pursued a new strategy Friday: a 141-page, eleventh-hour amendment to a separate education bill that had already won approval in the House and Senate. Under Senate rules, the opponents were powerless to stop it.

The amendment included much of the language from SB 1512.

In addition to expanding the Tax Credit Scholarship Program by creating partial scholarships and removing some of the barriers to participation, it places new restrictions and oversight on the non-profit organization that manages the program.

What's more, the amendment eliminates special diplomas, a priority for Sen. Andy Gardiner. It also creates "personal learning scholarship accounts" that can be used to reimburse the parents of special-needs children for educational expenses.

Sen. Dwight Bullard raised concerns about the way the policy had been brought to the Senate floor. 

"The idea of a last-day amendment that brings up the content of a [seperate] bill is problematic," said Bullard, D-Miami.

Bullard opposed the new language, saying students who participate in the tax credit scholarship program often return to their neighborhood public schools below grade level.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron made the argument for more choices for parents.

"Public schools should not have a monopoly," said Negron, R-Stuart. "We have choices in everything else. We have choices in health care. The default setting should not be every student must go to the public school that is zoned in their district, and if you want to do anything else off the beaten path, it’s unusual." 

The Senate approved the amendment in a voice vote.

The bill itself passed 29-11. It won the support of all 26 Senate Republicans and three Senate Democrats: Gwen Margolis, of Miami; Jeremy Ring, of Margate; and Darren Soto, of Orlando.

The proposal must still return to the House, where it is expected to receive final approval.