Combined school choice expansion wins approval from Florida House panel

A Florida House panel approved a new measure Friday that combines two pieces of legislation that would expand school choice programs.

The House revised legislation to expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, and folded it into a new bill that combines it with an effort to create education savings accounts for students with disabilities.

The Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved the measure on a party-line vote. Republicans like Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, stressed that while they support investing in public schools, they want to expand other options, too.

“Every child has different needs,” she said. “With the choices that this bill adds today, we’re simply recognizing that.”

Democrats criticized the effort to merge the two school choice proposals after the tax credit scholarship legislation was withdrawn in the Senate last week. The revived House version does not include a contentious provision that would have allowed companies to donate sales-tax collections to the scholarship program. (The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

While it has attracted opposition, the legislation to create savings accounts for students with disabilities has received bipartisan support in some committee votes. It also has the backing of top Republicans, including Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who is set to become Senate president later this year.

“I think putting these two voucher programs together is simply a Hail Mary, and I urge you to vote against this bill,” Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, told the committee.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said it made sense to combine the two plans into a measure that would give “two incredibly necessary pieces of legislation the hope of survival in the session.” He said he expects a vote on the House floor next week.

Democrats also raised the issue of standardized testing, a source of divisions that ensnared the original tax credit scholarship bill in the Senate.

Some Republicans contended that school choice programs are accountable for their results because parents can move their children to other schools, or return them to the public school system. Castor Dentel argued scholarship students should be required to take the same tests.

“Simply saying parents are happy is not an acceptable metric,” she said.

The question of how to measure the academic progress of scholarship students is hotly debated among school choice supporters.

Right now, students in Florida’s program are required by law to take national norm-referenced tests, with the results sent to an independent researcher for analysis. But the students are not required to take the same standardized assessments as public school students.

Lisa Tucker, director of First Christian Academy in DeFuniak Springs, said she supports the public schools in her area, and that she would have no problem seeing their results compared to students at her school. However, she said it could take time before those comparisons are feasible.

“I welcome accountability,” she told the committee. “I welcome a day when we are given the same test. I welcome an opportunity to show how over-qualified my staff members are. I welcome the opportunity to be that place within our community, and to provide, again, a choice that makes both systems, both schools, better.”

Under the House plan, the education savings account program would also be administered, like the tax credit scholarship program, by scholarship funding organizations. Step Up for Students has expressed interest in administering the program.

Other coverage: Palm Beach PostOrlando SentinelAssociated Press, WTXL, The Florida Current, Florida Times Union, Miami Herald.