With reluctance by several Democrats, senators on Friday morning endorsed significant expansions to two of Florida’s premiere voucher-like programs for education that help children with disabilities pay for alternative learning options and help poor children to afford private school.
Senators approved HB 15 by a 27-11 vote, with four Democrats joining Republicans in support. The House has to vote again this afternoon to approve the same language as the Senate, so that the bill can go to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.
The bill’s passage would mark another session victory for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.
Corcoran opened the 2017 session by prioritizing, in particular, growing the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is facilitated almost entirely by a single organization that is led by an influential and wealthy school choice advocate. The controversial scholarship aids low-income, mostly minority families by giving dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to businesses that donate money, which then pays for private school scholarships.
HB 15 calls for raising the award amounts so that families can stay in the program when their children advance to high school, where private education is more expensive.
Several Democratic senators said they didn’t want to “divert” more dollars to the tax credits — dollars they argue could otherwise go to improving K-12 public schools — and they struggled with voting “no” because they do support the Gardiner Scholarship to help children with disabilities.
By putting the two programs in a single bill, House Republicans linked the expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship to that of the tax-credit awards — meaning lawmakers could not expand one voucher program without the other.
“The Gardiner Scholarship program is a fantastic program, so I want desperately to be able to support this bill because of those provisions ... but I am philosophically opposed to corporate tax vouchers and diverting money away from our general funds, which could be used to improve our public school system,” Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said.
Proponents of the bill defended against the criticism of the tax credit scholarships.
“If we want to keep from failing our children, we have got to support this program and we have got to support these children who have no hope without it,” Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young said.
Democrats Daphne Campbell of Miami Shores, Bill Montford of Tallahassee, Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Linda Stewart of Orlando broke with the rest of their caucus and voted “yes.”