waiting list

A bill creating a new, state-funded scholarship passed the House Education Committee with some bipartisan support

TALLAHASSEE — In a bipartisan vote, the House Education Committee on Thursday passed a bill that would eliminate a waiting list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families.

House PCB EDC 19-01, known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship, would help pay for private school tuition and fees, with unused funds rolling over to the next school year. The scholarship also could cover transportation costs to a public or lab school in the student’s district.

The bill passed by a 15-2 vote during a hearing marked occasionally by emotional debate and testimony. All 12 Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the measure. They were joined by three Democrats: Reps. James Bush of Miami, Susan Valdes of Tampa and Kim Daniels of Jacksonville. (Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Lauderdale Lakes, was absent.)

“This isn’t about good schools and bad schools, or public versus private. It’s about what is best for our students,” said Committee Chair Jennifer Sullivan (R-Mount Dora). “Students are the ones who get lost in conversations with political rhetoric … I don’t believe government knows best. I believe a parent knows best.”

The House bill’s goal is similar to Senate Bill 7070passed last week by the Senate Education Committee in a 5-3 party-line vote, but there are significant differences between the two measures. The House bill would help about 28,000 students in 2019-20, while the Senate version would be capped at 15,000 students in its first year.

Unlike the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is funded with donations from corporations that receive tax credits, the new programs proposed by the House and Senate would be funded through the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP). While the Senate program would be administered by the state Department of Education, the House version would be managed by eligible scholarship funding organizations (SFOs) such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.

Under the House bill:

The value of the scholarships would be 97 percent of the district average per-student funding in the FEFP. Eligibility would be limited to students whose household income levels do not exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($77,250 for a family of four) in the first year. That amount would increase by 25 percent each following year until it reaches 375 percent of the federal poverty level ($96,563 for household of four).

Students would be eligible if they spent the previous school year in public school for grades 1 through 12, if they are entering kindergarten, or received a scholarship from an eligible Scholarship Funding Organization – or the state – the previous year. Once families are found eligible, they would not have to re-verify their income every year.

Priority in each year would be granted to renewal students and new applicants with household incomes under 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($47,637 for household of four) or who are in foster or out-of-home care. The number of new scholarships in any school year cannot exceed 1 percent of the total public school enrollment for that school year.

In comparison, the Senate bill puts the value of the scholarships at 95 percent of the district average per-student funding in the FEFP. Like the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, eligibility would be limited to students whose household income levels do not exceed 260 percent of the federal poverty level ($66,950 for a family of four). Beginning in 2020-21, the number of students on scholarship would increase with the percentage increase in the public school student enrollment.

Both bills address a disconnect between supply and demand for tax credit scholarships. Enrollment in the Florida Tax Credit program dropped for the first time in 14 years in 2018-19; in the preceding 13 years, the average annual enrollment increase was 20 percent. The dip was due to slower growth in corporate contributions, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Rep. Bruce Antone (D-Orlando) opposed the House bill during Thursday’s hearing, saying he worried that raising income-eligibility levels would defeat the tax credit scholarship’s original purpose, which he said was to help low-income parents.

Bush voted for the bill, but echoed some of Antone’s concerns.

“The original intent of FTC was to address, aid and assist low-income families and students,” Bush said. “That’s where we have to stay if we’re going to keep the original intent of helping these students, especially inner-city kids, African-American, Hispanic, white – whatever. Increasing the income level each year, that’s my only concern. We have to keep it at a level so that the bottom tier will not get lost in the shuffle as the program grows.”

In public comments, several parents spoke in favor of eliminating the waiting list. Among them was Shy Addison, a mother of three from Tallahassee who said she recently completed six years in the Army Reserves and just started a part-time job. She said her husband works full-time in the custodial department at FSU and is currently in the Army Reserves. Their oldest son, Ashton, has been on the waiting list for about a year.

“He doesn’t dislike his current school, he’s a pretty social kid, but he’s already struggling with math and reading,” Addison said. “I do what I can to help him, especially with reading, but as you can imagine, our household is pretty hectic.”

“We are hard-working and want what’s best for our children. Please do everything you can to eliminate the FTC waiting list to help families like ours.”

Chikara Parks, a single mother from St. Petersburg studying to become a teacher, said the FTC scholarship enabled her four children to leave a neighborhood school and attend private schools, where they are succeeding.

“I’m not against public schools, and private schools are by no means perfect. But my children’s private schools have been quicker and more effective at addressing issues than the public school was,” Parks said. “They’ve been given opportunities that weren’t available to them before. And none of it would’ve happened without the tax credit scholarship.”

Nicolette Springer, representing the League of Women Voters of Florida, spoke against the measure, calling it unconstitutional.

“We want to take (public) dollars and funnel them to private institutions and it flows through with no accountability,” Springer said. “(Private schools) are not certifying teachers or testing students the same way as in public schools. They don’t follow the same standards as public school teachers. It’s unfair to voters and taxpayers. It also re-segregates school districts; it does nothing to affect children in a positive manner.”

Teacher Amy Smith of Hardee County offered an emotional plea in opposition of the bill. She said that every year, her children are disappointed when they find out their favorite teacher has left the school because the district can’t afford to retain educators.

“They’re leaving my profession because the cost-benefit balance is no longer in the best interest of their families,” Smith said. “This bill would further erode districts’ ability to retain teachers and fill the thousands of vacancies projected for next year.

“Sometimes,” she added through tears, “public school teachers feel like the state ties an anchor to our ankles and we can’t swim. We want to provide a world-class education to all students in the state. I implore you to fund the public education system and not vouchers.”

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Naples), who supported the bill, also became emotional while commenting.

“This is not about favoring public, private or charter schools,” he said. “It’s about favoring parents who have one goal in mind: the future of our children. It’s a crime we haven’t done this sooner.”

Despite the waiting list, demand for the Florida Tax Credit scholarship remains strong. Parents of more than 170,000 students had started applications by the time Step Up For Students halted the application process in June. This year, Step Up already has awarded more than 87,000 scholarships for 2019-20, more than 44,000 of which are new — approximately 20,000 students ahead of last year. New students are starting applications at a rate of more than 1,000 a day.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last month proposed a state-funded “Equal Opportunity Scholarship” to eliminate the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship waiting list.

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