TALLAHASSEE — In a 5-3 party-line vote, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education voted Tuesday to advance a bill that would eliminate the waiting list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families.
The bill, SB7070, creates the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which would allow about 15,000 low-income students to attend the private school of their choice in 2019-20. Nearly 13,000 students are on the waiting list for Florida Tax Credit scholarships.
The legislation, which previously passed the Senate Education Committee on an identical party-line vote, includes other provisions related to a teacher bonus program and funding for social services at public schools. The bill’s next stop is the full Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) characterized the bill as “American” and “about freedom.”
“The empowerment of people making choices about their own life is tremendous,” Baxley said. “Most folks choose a traditional community school. This bill gives a tremendous push to traditional schools in addition to allowing choices for students who it’s not working for. If they’re not swimming, at least throw them the inner tube.”
Unlike the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is funded with private donations from corporations that receive tax credits, the proposed Family Empowerment Scholarship program would be funded with tax dollars through the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP).
Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) cited that provision in opposing the bill.
“This is a fundamental change in public education in the state of Florida,” Montford said. “We have all kinds of choice programs, but when we tinker with FEFP, we’re going down the wrong path. I believe in choice, but we have to make decisions on when we stop paying for other peoples’ choices.”
Under the bill, the value of Florida Tax Credit scholarships would be 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 ($62,650 for a family of four). The program would be capped at 15,000 students its first year. That cap would increase with the annual growth of public school students in the state.
In a bipartisan vote last week, the House Education Committee passed its version of a bill that would eliminate the Florida Tax Credit waiting list. House PCB EDC 19-01, known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship, would help about 28,000 students in 2019-20. It sets a higher income limit for eligibility, opening it up to middle-class families.
Enrollment in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program dropped for the first time in 14 years in 2018-19, the result of slower growth in corporate contributions, according to the state Department of Revenue. (The program is administered by non-profits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)
Demand for the 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 because of the funding shortfall. Step Up already has awarded more than 88,000 scholarships for 2019-20, approximately 20,000 students ahead of last year.
Several parents spoke in support of the bill. Among them was Pierline Batiste of Miami, who implored lawmakers to end the waiting list, which her family has been on for about a year. She said her 13-year-old daughter Jeffryka has been bullied at her neighborhood school and she doesn’t want her son, Tyler, 6, to endure the same treatment.
“They bully her over everything. They don’t like her hair. They don’t like the way she dresses,” Batiste said. “When I drop her off at school, she gets stressed out, because all of these kids bother her for no reason. My son will go into first grade next year, and I don’t want him to deal with all that.”
Justice Frazier, a longtime former public school teacher now operating a private school with his wife, said the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship has provided peace of mind to frustrated parents and struggling students.
“Many students, when they get to my school, can’t face you, they won’t lift their eyes up,” he said. “They’re usually behind in math basics, they’re in seventh and eighth grade and they can’t tell you what 2 times 8 is. Parents are so grateful for the scholarship and they’re at their wits’ end.
“We have to do it right, make it safe and make a difference for the kids, emotionally, academically and socially.”
Pamela Schwartz, president of the Florida Retired Educators Association, was one of several speakers who opposed the bill. She said private schools don’t adhere to the same accountability and fiscal oversight standards as public schools, which she said lack funding and resources.
“You’re diverting funding from state public schools,” Schwartz said. “It’s a shame to give taxpayers’ money to schools that say they do a better job.”
Earlier Tuesday, Senate education leaders released a plan to increase education spending in 2019-20 by $1.1 billion, to $22.2 billion. That includes a $350 hike in per-pupil funding, to $7,779.
A new Florida law intended to eliminate multiple barriers to private and home school students who want to take dual enrollment classes has instead left potentially hundreds of students shut out of taking such courses because their private schools are asked to foot the bill.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who wrote the legislation on dual enrollment, wants to mitigate the issue in the upcoming legislative session.
Baxley said he will advocate for a separate pooled fund or cost sharing mechanism that could potentially be used to cover the costs of dual enrollment, removing the financial burden for colleges and private schools.
At the same time, Baxley said he is open to hearing other options from lawmakers about how to address the issue.
“I want to do whatever we can to close the gap so all students have access to dual enrollment,” he said.
Baxley, who was appointed last week by Senate President Bill Galvano to the Education Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said dual enrollment courses are vital to a student’s education.
“It is beneficial to move these students quicker to the finish line on college completion,” he said.
A change in the law in 2013 shifted the cost of dual enrollment programs from colleges to school districts. But it did not address private schools, meaning many of them now must absorb the cost of college courses for high school students.
The new provisions on dual enrollment were contained in a wide-ranging bill, HB 7055, which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in March. They were expected to address the issue.
One of those provisions removed the requirement that articulation agreements – the documents that allow students to take certain classes at nearby colleges — must specify whether the private schools are responsible for tuition. But educators were not clear on whether that meant that colleges or the private schools would pay the costs of dual enrollment.
Private school officials were waiting this summer for clarification from the state Department of Education, but a recent memo on the bill did not address the provisions. DOE spokesperson Audrey Walden instead cited a memo from Madeline Pumariega, former chancellor of the Florida College System. Pumariega formally oversaw the state’s 28 public colleges, which many private school students attend when they participate in dual enrollment.
Pumariega wrote that even though the new law no longer requires compensation “as a minimum requirement for private school dual enrollment articulation agreements,” it does not prevent colleges from charging a private school for dual enrollment because “previous language (in the law) neither granted nor barred the charging of the private school.”
Dual enrollment by private school students has been declining, even before this year’s change in the law. According to the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the number of students in private schools participating in dual enrollment has fallen by nearly 60 percent in recent years. In the 2011-2012 school year, more than 7,000 private school students participated in dual enrollment compared to only 3,026 in 2016-17.
James Herzog, who works on education policy for the Catholic Bishops Conference, said he is encouraged that Baxley would like to address the issue.
“That means a lot to the schools, the students and the hard-working families we serve,” he said.
Attempts to modify or remove funding from parts of a major piece of education legislation fizzled today in the Florida Senate.
As a result, all $419 million in House Bill 7069, including the House’s signature program to draw top charter school operators to academically struggling areas of the state, will likely remain intact as Gov. Rick Scott evaluates the measure in the face of a heated public campaign.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs and Senate education budget chief, set aside attempts to shift funding from the Schools of Hope grant program and a teacher bonus program into the main operating fund for public schools.
He had raised concerns about how the bill would be implemented and made clear today he still hopes those concerns will be addressed at some point.
During a debate on the Senate floor, Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, gave a forceful defense of the measure. He sponsored an expansion of virtual education eligibility that was folded into the bill during the regular legislative session that concluded last month. He rejected the idea, espoused by opponents of the bill, that it was simply force-fed to some Senators “to make a deal” with the other chamber.
A revised bill in the Florida Senate would allow students to attend virtual schools across district lines.
Sponsor Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the measure would extend the state’s new open-enrollment policy for public schools “into the virtual arena.”
A law passed last year allowed Florida parents to transport their students to any public school in the state that had room for them. An amendment to SB 868, which passed the Senate Education Committee unanimously today, would extend that policy to “virtual charter schools, and district virtual programs.”
Florida Virtual School functions like a statewide school district, enrolling students in online classes full- and part-time.
But supporters of the change said right now, geographic boundaries still apply to Florida’s other online learning options, like virtual charter schools, school district-run Virtual Instruction Programs and local FLVS franchises.
While charter schools have proliferated in Florida, nearly a third of of the state’s school districts, most of them rural, don’t have one — a fact that got attention from members of a state House panel discussing charter school legislation.
State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, wanted to know whether home education and virtual schools were more popular with parents who had fewer charter schools available (maps of state data support this idea in some places; in others it’s less clear).
Since districts without charters tend to be rural, parents looking for other options could face a long drive to a neighboring county, said state Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach. She wanted to know if the state could use one of its grant programs to lure charter schools to communities where none exist.
“We’ve got 22 counties that don’t have their first charter school,” she said, and then asked “if there’s a way that we tailor something for those counties… so that we can incentivize and grow choice in counties where there is none.”
A Florida charter school bill cleared its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday, after avoiding the party-line votes and heated debates that have flared in recent years.
The legislation, aimed at improving charter school quality, passed the House Choice and Innovation panel with bipartisan support.
Rep. Irv Slosberg, a South Florida Democrat who voted for the bill, described it as a “beneficial compromise.”
It would create a charter school institute at Florida State University that would help vet charter school applications, examine teacher preparation programs, and otherwise help the state’s 67 school boards manage its roughly 650 charter schools. It would also give school boards more authority to screen charter applicants and make it easier for academically high-performing charters to expand in high-needs neighborhoods.
“Charter schools are like a fast-moving freight train,” Slosberg said. “On one hand you don’t want to get in front of the train, and other other hand you want to slow it down so it doesn’t crash.”
Longtime charter school supporters, including Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the legislation would help modernize Florida’s 19-year-old charter school laws. He said parents’ access to charter schools can vary depending on where they live.
Not the best fit. Andy Ford, president of the Florida teachers union, says in this Q&A with the Orlando Sentinel that Tony Bennett is “the best fit for the Jeb Bush power structure, but not the best choice for Florida’s students, parents and school employees.” Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan cites the PIRLS results in responding to a critical editorial about Bennett in the Tampa Bay Times.
Conflicts of interest? Three Board of Education members contributed to Tony Bennett’s campaign in Indiana. Gradebook.
Rick Scott is right to require students with vouchers and tax credit scholarships to take the same standardized tests as their public school peers, writes Adam Emerson at Choice Words.
In the wake of Newtown. Security beefed up at Florida schools: Tampa Bay Times, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Palm Beach Post, Lakeland Ledger. Beneath the surface, emotional scars, reports the Miami Herald. State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and the author of the “stand your ground” law, says schools would be safer if teachers and principals could bring guns, reports the Sarasota Herald Tribune. More from Orlando Sentinel, Fort Myers News Press, Naples Daily News, Florida Today.
Remediation series. StateImpact Florida.