Senate adds tax credit provisions to school choice legislation

Travis Pillow

Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students could see increased scrutiny under school choice legislation approved Tuesday by a Senate panel.

In a move that mirrors the House’s approach, the Senate combined tax credit scholarship legislation with a bill creating personal education accounts for special-needs students.

Substantial differences remain between the two chambers on both of those components. But House Speaker Will Weatherford said the move increases the chances of the differences getting resolved before the legislative session is scheduled to end on May 2.

“I think people have overestimated how far apart the House and Senate are on that bill,” he told reporters. “We’re trying to define the new accountability measurements,  what they should be, and what they need to look like, and I think there’s plenty of time to get that done.”

Like earlier tax credit scholarship proposals this legislative session, the Senate’s new plan would eliminate prior public school attendance requirements for scholarship eligibility in grades 6-12 and increase access to the program for foster children. However, it does not include some of the other provisions expanding the program, such as language in the House bill that would allow families with higher incomes to receive partial scholarships.

While earlier debates had centered on testing, the new bill would not require students who receive scholarships to take the same tests as public school students. But it would change the way the state handles the students’ test results.

State law currently requires scholarship students to take norm-referenced tests. The results are sent to an independent researcher, who is contracted by the state Department of Education to analyze the results and prepare a report each year. The Senate proposal would replace the current researcher, David Figlio of Northwestern University, with the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University. It would also require the institute to report the students’ overall performance instead of their learning gains from one year to the next.

Among other things, changes approved Tuesday would also place more stringent auditing requirements on the non-profit organizations that administer the program, including Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. It would also allow universities to serve as scholarship funding organizations.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who offered the amendment, said his proposal “increases the scrutiny” for scholarship organizations, something that was important to Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who is also the CEO of the state school superintendents association.

“The taxpayer deserves to know how every penny of that is being spent,” Montford said.
Montford was one of three Democrats who voted for the combined bill as it cleared the Appropriations Committee. It could now head to the Senate floor.

The Senate also tweaked its plan to create education savings accounts for students with disabilities, which is also different from the House plan. The sponsor of the bill, Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the learning accounts were “not a voucher program.”

Instead, she said that portion of the legislation would create “a learning account over and above the educational choices” families with special-needs children make. The program would be administered by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which could decrease its chances of expanding into other student populations as Arizona has done with its education savings accounts.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who is set to become Senate president next year, said the bill is part of a multi-year process to improve opportunities for students with disabilities. But he predicted the House and Senate would be going “back and forth on some of the aspects of this” during the final week and a half of the legislative session.

“We’re prepared to sit down and look at all of this to see if we can come up with some understanding,” he said.

Coverage elsewhere:

Orlando Sentinel.

Scripps/Tribune

EdWeek.

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