FL Gov. Rick Scott signs school choice expansion bill

Gov. Scott
Gov. Scott

Florida continues its national pace setting on parental choice under a bill signed into law today by Gov. Rick Scott.

SB 850 allows more students to qualify for the nation’s largest publicly funded private school choice program, which is expected to serve more than 67,000 low-income students this fall. It makes Florida the second state in the nation to offer new personalized learning scholarship accounts for special needs students.

Those changes helped make the bill one of the most contentious of the state’s 2014 legislative session.

The bill mandates more state oversight of organizations that administer the scholarship program. (Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, is the only organization doing so at the moment).

The bill also increases the financial incentives for schools to expand career academies. And a provision backed by Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz will push the state’s community colleges to offer at least one “collegiate high school” program in every school district in the state, which would allow students to finish a year’s worth of college credits before graduating high school.

“Finally, every student in each of Florida’s 67 school districts is afforded the opportunity for advancement through a collegiate high school, and is more adequately prepared for their future careers,” Legg said in a statement.

The portion of the bill dealing with tax credit scholarships increases the scholarship amount; removes the requirement that in order to qualify, students in grades 6-12 must have been in public school the year prior; and, beginning in 2016, offers partial scholarships to working-class families with incomes up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level.

The scholarship program is funded by corporations that get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions. The original legislation included a modest increase in the state-imposed spending cap, which will be $357.8 million next year. The final bill included no change.

Critics of the scholarship program, including the statewide teachers union, seized on the fact that participating students do not take the same assessments as their counterparts in public schools. They are required to take standardized tests, and schools are required to report the results to an independent researcher for analysis.

“Public schools face a strict accountability regimen that includes frequent testing, school grades and punitive actions for not meeting state mandates,” Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, said in a statement, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “But taxpayer dollars flowing to voucher schools require very little accountability and can in no way be compared to what is required for public schools.

The personal learning scholarship accounts will allow parents of certain special-needs students to access 90 percent of the funding a school district would have received for that student, and to direct it to a wide range of uses, including private school tuition, tutoring programs and therapy sessions. The Legislature set aside $18.4 million for the program for the 2014-15 school year.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, is among the new program’s key backers. He is the father of a child with Down syndrome and is set to take over as Senate President after the November elections. He has said he intends to support policies that allow children with disabilities to graduate high school ready to enter the workforce.

In a statement, he said the accounts will allow parents to “make certain our students receive an education tailored to their unique abilities.”

Other coverage: Orlando Sentinel. Gradebook. Education Week. Associated Press, News Service of Florida, SaintPetersBlog, Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, WFSU.