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Expansion Of Private School Scholarships Introduced

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - The "massive expansion" of Florida's de facto voucher system promised by House Speaker Will Weatherford was filed Thursday, setting up what is expected to be one of the most-contentious education battles of the 2014 legislative session.

Under the proposal (PCB FTSC 14-02), retailers could divert sales-tax payments to the system; middle-class families would qualify for partial scholarships; and each scholarship would cover more of the cost of attending a private school.

The bill would also increase a cap on the program's fundraising; drop for many students a provision requiring those in middle school or high school to have attended public schools for at least one year before qualifying for a voucher; and toughen standards on organizations that provide the scholarships.

In an interview last week with The News Service of Florida, Weatherford said his goal was to make sure the program was available for more students.

"I'd like to get to a place where there never has to be a waiting list," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "If there's a single mom who's got a son or a daughter who's stuck in a failing school, and she wants to go into the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to give her kid a better chance in life, I would never want to say, 'Our door is shut to you because we hit the cap and we don't have enough room for your child.' "

Unlike in past years, the only scholarship organization did not keep track of a waiting list for this school year, a spokesman said. But about 60,000 students were given scholarships, and another 34,000 started the application process before the program cut off the process because it was full, according to Jon East of Step Up For Students.

"We think that suggests that there is a fair upside still to families wanting this scholarship. ... I think it's fair to say that there's quite a bit of unmet need," East said.

One of the most sweeping changes to the program would be the authority for sales taxes to be sent to scholarship organizations instead of the state, which would provide tax credits to retailers that do so. Until now, the program has been largely funded by credits against taxes paid by corporations, including corporate income taxes and insurance premium taxes.

But the partial scholarships would also change another characteristic of the program. Currently, families qualify for the scholarships if they are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches -- for example, a family of four making no more than $43,568.

The new formula would be tied to the federal poverty level and would allow students to qualify for at least partial scholarships if their family incomes are no more than 260 percent of that level, or $62,010 for a family of four, according to Step Up For Students. Full scholarships would top out at $47,700 for those families.

The bill would also provide an additional boost for the scholarship cap, which would already have increased to $358 million for the 2014-15 school year. The bill would boost the cap to $390 million for that year, and keep the limit about $30 million above what it otherwise would have been for several years.

The program's cap already increases by 25 percent every time it hits a predetermined growth trigger set by the Legislature.

An expected Senate measure will likely include a provision requiring students who receive the scholarships to take state standardized tests. Students in the program are already required to take a standardized test, but not necessarily the same one used in public schools.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who also serves as chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, appeared hesitant Thursday about the possibility of allowing the program to access sales taxes.

"The net result is a reduction into the general fund, which means there would be a reduction in what is spent on education and health care and across the board," he said.

A spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said the group was still reviewing the bill.

"We don't understand why some lawmakers in the state continue to fail to understand that their primary obligation is to our public schools, not to creating and expanding a parallel system," spokesman Mark Pudlow said.

"The News Service of Florida's Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report."

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