A bill that would bolster two Florida private school choice programs is headed to Gov. Rick Scott after recieving bipartisan support in both chambers of the state Legislature.
The bill would increase per-student funding for tax credit scholarships. Scholarships right now are capped at about 82 percent of Florida’s core per-pupil public school operating funding.
The bill would allow low-income children to receive scholarships ranging from about 88 percent of average per-pupil funding in the Florida Education Finance Program (about $6,354 under the budget deal negotiated by lawmakers) in elementary school to 96 percent (or about $6,931) in high school, where private school tuition tends to be more expensive.
The legislation would also allow military families to apply for the school choice program year-round. And it would increase maximum scholarships in a branch of the program that reimburses transportation expenses for children attending public schools across district lines from $500 per student to $750.
The measure would also expand the list of conditions that allow students to qualify for Gardiner scholarships, which provide education savings accounts for children with special needs. The program would be open to children who are visually or hearing-impaired, those with traumatic brain injuries, and other children whose special needs qualify them for individualized education programs.
Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer both programs.
During a heated debate on the Senate floor, critics said they supported special needs scholarships and lamented the two programs were tied together in a single bill. They also said they worried about diverting funding from public schools.
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said funding for Florida’s public schools remains far below the national average.
“We simply are not doing enough for our public schools,” he said. “I know I may sound like a broken record. But until we can catch up and address funding our public schools, I don’t believe we should be engaging in these kind of tax credit school vouchers for private schools.”
Supporters like Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said they believed in supporting public schools and private school choice at the same time. They said the bill would not steer additional funding from public schools, and that tax credit scholarships save the state money, which can be plowed back into public schools.
“I am for public education,” Rouson said, noting he has sent all of his children to public schools.
At the same time, he said, his youngest child had cognitive difficulties and needed to accept a McKay scholarship to attend a private school. And low-income students in his district who struggle in their assigned schools should have access to institutions like Academy Prep Center, a college preparatory private school for low-income children.