FL again takes up school-choice bill

Part 78 of 78 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

An argument over assessment stalled a proposed expansion to Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program, but the proposal was revived — this time alongside another school-choice program.

A state House subcommittee approved the bill Friday morning. Lawmakers are waiting for the speaker of the House to refer the bill to committee or to the floor.

“The purpose of the raising of the cap (on the tax-credit scholarship program) … is based on over 100,000 people being on a waiting list and or desiring and or demonstrating the desire to be in this program,” said Erik Fresen, chairman of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

The amount of money a scholarship-funding nonprofit can collect in tax-credited donations is capped each year. If donations reach 90 percent of that cap and there’s a healthy demand for the scholarships, the next year’s cap will be 25 percent higher.

That’s the current law. The bill would bump the cap up for the next five years.

“Even at the current 25 percent allowance of increase in the program every year, the program has fallen behind on the demand curve. By allowing the 25 percent currently in law and (the increase in the bill), we should be able to hopefully catch that increasing demand curve by the third, fourth, fifth year and then be able to glide from there on out,” Fresen said.

The bill would allow more children to be eligible for scholarships. Current law allows scholarships only for students living at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill would allow students to receive partial scholarships if their families’ incomes fall between 185 percent and 260 percent of the poverty level.

Step Up for Students, the scholarship granting nonprofit, received 94,000 applications and distributed 60,000 scholarships for the 2013-14 school year, said Patrick Gibbons, public affairs manager. If the bill does not pass, the nonprofit will be able to fund about 67,000 scholarships next year. If the bill passes it could fund an additional 5,000 or 6,000, he said.

The organization has already received about 80,000 applications for next year, he said.

A similar expansion stalled earlier this session when lawmakers disagreed about whether scholarship students should be required to take the same standardized tests as public school students. Current law requires scholarship students to take a national-norm reference test, but schools can choose from several options.

FRESEN: “The purpose of the raising of the cap (on the tax-credit scholarship program) … is based on over 100,000 people being on a waiting list and or desiring and or demonstrating the desire to be in this program.”

The Florida Education Association opposes the bill, said Mark Pudlow, spokesman. “In a state where per-pupil spending is one of the lowest in the country, we need to be focusing on improving our neighborhood public schools, not opening a parallel public school system with little or no accountability.”

The program should at least include greater testing, Pudlow said.

“Public tax dollars that go to public schools have a real stringent battery of tests that students have to take. Teachers are graded on them for evaluations. Schools get a grade, school districts get a grade, tests have incredible requirements and incredible punishments to them,” he said. “If we’re going to be sending tax dollars to private schools, they ought to have the exact same requirements so that the public understands where the money is going, the quality of schools it’s going to.”

School vouchers were ruled unconstitutional in Florida in 2006, and the tax-credit scholarship program operates differently: corporations receive tax credits for donations they make to a nonprofit; that nonprofit then distributes scholarships. This way, the scholarships are funded through incentivized private donations instead of taxpayer dollars.

Fresen said private schools have plenty of accountability, and the testing argument is a distraction.

“Depending on the argument we’re listening to, the assessments are the worst things in the world and we should take them away from public schools,” he said. “Only when you take a child out of a public school because of a choice, because (the private school is) better tailor-suited for their child, or the child just feels in a better environment, does it all of a sudden become all about the assessment and how great it is and how every child should be assessed. I mean, I think that there’s a disconnect there in the application of that logic.”

In addition to the standards required to be an accredited school in Florida, private schools also are accountable to parents, he said. The government doesn’t need to regulate that choice.

“I think to assume that somehow that decision has no basis and that all of a sudden that’s where government should actually come in and somehow supersede that decision and or overlook and be the parent of that decision by the parent, I think that’s a dangerous road to go on.”

Also included in the bill is a personalized learning accounts program, modeled on Arizona’s education savings accounts program. Parents could use the money for private school tuition, educational therapy, private tutoring or other educational resources to tailor their child’s learning to his or her needs.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.