Florida school choice legislation headed to Gov. Rick Scott

The Florida Legislature gave a boost to school choice programs Friday, with proposals to expand tax credit scholarships and create education savings accounts now on their way to Gov. Rick Scott.

Several times, legislation expanding eligibility for the scholarship program and creating new education savings accounts for special needs students appeared poised for defeat in a session riven with conflicts over how to measure the performance of students who receive scholarships.

But the Senate revived the measure early in the session’s final day by combining it with a broader education bill. The House approved the package Friday evening on a 70-44 vote that fell largely along party lines.

The final bill would allow students with household incomes up to $62,000 a year to qualify for partial scholarships. It would increase auditing requirements for scholarship funding organizations, including Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

It would require schools to report their students’ scores to the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University, which would compare their performance with public school students. (A similar, state-mandated analysis is currently done by Northwestern University researcher David Figlio.)

The bill would also expand collegiate high schools, eliminate a $60 million cap on bonuses for schools whose students earn industry certifications and create new personal learning accounts for students with special needs.

Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, was among the Democrats who objected to the new provisions when the bill came up in the House. She said were “weighing down what is an otherwise decent bill.” Without holding scholarship students to the same standards as those in public schools, she said, the program’s benefits were based on “wishful thinking.”

Education savings accounts are considered the cutting edge of school choice. If Gov. Scott approves the legislation, the new Florida program would be the second of its kind in the nation. It would allow parents to use funds the state would have spent on their education to pay for therapy and educational needs for children with conditions like autism and spina bifida.

In a statement, Patricia Levesque, director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said the program would “give families of students with certain disabilities flexibility and freedom to create education plans custom-made for their children.”

“Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts will allow parents to pick the best place to educate their child and the combination of therapies or services that best meets their children’s unique needs,” she said. “They may also prioritize their education dollars where they think they’ll be best used.”

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