Florida House panel approves school choice scholarship expansion

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr, R-Hialeah, presented the House's tax-credit scholarship legislation on Thursday,
Rep. Manny Diaz Jr, R-Hialeah, presented the House’s tax-credit scholarship legislation on Thursday.

A bill that would expand Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday.

Students and religious leaders who traveled from around the state packed the House Finance & Tax subcommittee, which approved the measure on a party-line vote.

The bill would allow more students to enter the program more quickly, increase the maximum scholarship amount and create partial scholarships for students with family incomes greater than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

“I think it’s a good thing that we are offering more hard-working families a choice to send a children to the school that best meets their needs,” said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, who was among the bill’s supporters.

It would also place stricter requirements on the organizations that administer the program, including Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

The committee bill was introduced by Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah. He faced tough questions from Democrats, some of whom said they supported the program in its current form but opposed the bill. Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, said the bill would grow the program “too much, too fast.”

He also questioned provisions that would create partial scholarships for families with incomes up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level, and said private schools participating in the program should be subject to the same grading system as public schools.

If the bill passes, the program could grow to $390 million next school year, while producing nearly $451 million in savings for the Florida Education Finance Program, the state’s main operating fund for public schools, according to estimates by House staff.

By the 2018-19 school year, the program would be projected to grow to nearly $874 million, the same size it is projected to reach under the current law, the staff estimates show. But the program would grow more quickly in the years after the bill takes effect.

This school year, the scholarships are worth $4,880 per student, or 72 percent of the state’s core per-student funding. That would eventually increase to 80 percent under the current law, but would reach 84 percent under the bill.

During her impassioned testimony in favor of the bill, Chanae Jackson-Baker, who traveled from Ocala, said her children had struggled in public schools. She pointed out that “it costs $17,338 a year to house a prisoner.”

“We keep talking about money. The children are an investment,” she said, adding that she spends hundreds of dollars a month in tuition beyond the amount covered by scholarships. “I invest more in their education, because it is an investment financially.”

Opponents included representatives from the Florida Education Association,  League of Women Voters of Florida and Florida AFL-CIO.

“Traditional public schools have proven their value,” said Debbie Harrison Rumberger, the league’s lobbyist, referring to Florida’s gains on national math and reading tests. “Florida’s Constitution does not require high-quality private schools,” she continued. It requires high-quality public schools.

Other coverage: Associated Press, Miami Herald.