After a contentious debate, the Florida House approved school choice legislation that would create education savings accounts for special needs students and allow students with higher incomes to participate in the state’s tax credit scholarship program.
Friday’s 73-43 vote fell on party lines. Many of the Democrats who opposed the bill focused their arguments on testing and accountability. So did one notable supporter: Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
Gaetz said he believes in school choice. But he also said he agreed with Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, who on Wednesday proposed an amendment that would require students receiving scholarships to take standardized tests that allow for more direct comparisons with public school students.
Florida’s system of standardized testing and school grades, Gaetz said, helps explain why Florida’s graduation rates have risen and its achievement gaps have shrunk. Republicans, he said, have been “the party of accountability.”
“We should be the ones that seize this mantle of accountability, because it’s worked,” Gaetz said. “That’s why we’re doing so well in our public schools.”
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Gaetz’s father, Senate President Don Gaetz, has also called for more comparable standardized tests to be given to scholarship students. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)
Democrats also seized on a provision that would expand program eligibility to families whose incomes are currently too high to qualify. The bill would allow partial scholarships, on a sliding scale, to families earning up to 260 percent of the poverty level. For example, a family of four with a household income of $62,010 would be eligible for half the scholarship amount. The scholarship is currently worth $4,880 a year.
Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, said the scholarships were “designed for the truly needy.” But the new eligibility standards would “get close to the middle class.”
“I believe in public money for public schools,” he said. “I was willing to make an exception here. I’d like it to stay the way it is.”
In his closing arguments on the bill, its sponsor, Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said wealthy parents have always had the ability to enroll their children in private schools, and the existing programs help people with lower incomes. He said the changes would expand options for the “largest class” – people with middle incomes.
Supporters of school choice, he said, are on “the right side of history.”
“It’s coming. It’s happening. It’s a feature of education that is going to happen. Look around. All the fights are between institutions and groups that are somehow embedded in a system,” he said. “Forget about the system. Let’s talk about the kids.”