Florida Legislature: Week 8 wrap-up

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After weeks of negotiation, the Florida Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would create the state-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship, ending the waiting list for about 13,000 low-income students eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Senate Bill 7070 would serve 18,000 students in the program’s first year, with an expansion each year by one quarter of 1 percent of the state’s total public school enrolment.

The Senate made a series of changes to the bill in recent weeks, aligning it more closely with a companion bill in the House, HB7075. Among the changes: an increase to the eligibility threshold to allow middle-class families – those who make roughly $77,000 a year – to use the scholarships.

The bill also expands the “Schools of Hope” program, which allows charter schools to open near traditional public schools rated “persistently low-performing” because of failing school grades. The legislation would adjust the definition of “low performing,” allowing more schools to fit within the category. It also would allow “Hope” charters to open in low-income areas designated by the federal government.

On Friday, House Speaker Jose Oliva signaled that his chamber will approve the bill with the Senate’s changes.

Just before midnight Thursday, the House passed HB7123, which will, among other things, require school districts to share tax referendum money with charter schools. About 20 Florida school districts reap the benefit of voter-approved increases to local property taxes, but not all share the revenues among all their schools.

In November, voters in eight counties approved extra taxes for public schools. Four of the counties – Alachua, Lee, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach – made formal decisions prior to the election not to share the revenue from tax increases with charter schools.