TEMPLE TERRACE – On Friday afternoon at Florida College Academy, 18 first-graders sat clustered together on a colorful rug as media specialist Judi Duff gave a lesson on the book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
About half these students are from families too poor to pay the $5,000 a year tuition. They are here at the faith-based school, going to chapel and learning Bible lessons along with their academics, through a state program that directs tax payments from willing corporations to scholarships for some 60,000 students.
Schools like Florida College Academy are at the center of what promised to be a contentious debate in the legislative session now under way in Tallahassee. Backers of the tax-credit scholarship program aimed to greatly expand it by making more families eligible — those at 260 percent of poverty level instead of today’s 185 percent — and by adding retailers and others to the list of corporations that can contribute.
Even those who say they support the program objected to an expansion that big. Teachers unions have deeper problems with it, saying it robs money from public schools at a time when they’re being ordered by the Legislature to do more and more costly testing. In the end, sponsor Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, pulled his expansion bill for this year Thursday to work on making sure the private schools can prove their worth.
“Nothing is dead in week three, but it has certainly created significant challenges for the bill,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “I would say that I think quitting on thousands of parents and families and children that are waiting to get an opportunity of choice for their child is a disappointment.”
Still, the scholarship program will grow under formulas established by the Legislature in years past, triggering added money when demand for enrollment among families is high. Demand is very high: The waiting list this year is 30,000 and 77,000 already have applied for next year.
So the cap on scholarship payments is set to rise from $286 million to $358 million next year.
Galvano’s bill would tack on an extra $43.6 million per year for the next five years, enough to help extend eligibility to students in a family of four making up to $65,000 a year — up from the current $43,568. It would have covered an estimated 8,000 additional students.
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Florida College Academy represents what backers had in mind when the tax-credit scholarship, administered through the nonprofit Step Up For Students, was established in 2001.
Temple Terrace’s oldest private school, the academy has an enrollment of 173 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, 52 of them on tax-credit scholarships of $4,880 each.
Principal Lynn Wade said many of these scholarship students come here with behavior and academic problems but thrive in the private school setting. Some go on to the ninth grade at other schools reading at least two years above grade level.
“We’ve got some good kids who come in from Step Up,” Wade said. “but they’ve been bruised in other schools.”
Florida College Academy is typical of the tax-scholarship program in other ways, too. The program got its start in Tampa through the founder of the Step Up For Students program. And the Tampa area has the largest concentration of scholarship recipients by far — 2,637 students enrolled in 72 private schools, 2,166 students in 75 Pinellas schools and 849 students in 24 Pasco schools.
“It’s all about matching the kid to the environment that works best for them,” said Jon East, Step Up’s vice president for policy and public affairs. “We know these kids are the lowest performers in the schools they left behind. We know they are poorer.”
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In 1998, Tampa businessman John Kirtley created the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Tampa Bay, which provided privately funded scholarships to send low-income children to the school of their choice.
In 2001, he lobbied the Legislature to start a corporate tax-credit scholarship program and Step Up for Students was born.
Businesses apply to participate through the Department of Revenue and private schools that want to accept scholarship students apply through the Florida Department of Education.
Step Up, with 88 full-time staffers and 35 seasonal employees, is the largest organization of its kind in the country. About $8.3 million is spent to staff and operate the organization per year. The organization also co-hosts the “redefinED” blog.
East said 1,425 schools, about 80 percent of which have a religious affiliation, accepted the vouchers during the current year. About two-thirds of the students enrolled in the program are black or Hispanic, and about half of those kids come from single-family homes.
In addition to administering the scholarships, Step Up has an advocacy and outreach division that lobbies lawmakers to keep the tax-scholarship program growing.
According to 2012 tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the nonprofit has spent $645,534 on lobbying efforts over the last four years.
The organization pushes a broader school choice agenda in Tallahassee, sometimes supporting efforts dealing charter schools, magnet schools, online courses and dual-enrollment community college programs.
Step Up contracts with lobbyist Denise Lasher, who is paid $72,000 per year for her work on its behalf.
After hearing that the expansion bill had been withdrawn Thursday, Kirtley issued a statement, saying he appreciates legislators’ efforts to “try to work this out.”
“It is a very difficult task to quickly remake the academic accountability for this program, especially in this environment. I hope we can all work together in the future to help more families.”
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At first, it appeared that the changes in Galvano’s bill were well on their way to becoming reality. The expansion measure passed along party lines in two House committees.
“It’s taken a life of its own as people are doing as they unfortunately do in political debates,” said East, a Democrat. “We’re seeing Democrats separating from Republicans. This should not be a partisan issue.”
The Florida Education Association, a teachers union, has fundamental problems with the scholarship or voucher program.
“The whole idea of vouchers flies in the face of improving public schools,” said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the association. “We slashed funding for education, but voucher schools continued to get increases.”
Pudlow said the money spent on the program comes from taxpayer dollars and should be spent on public education.
“We ought to be making sure that every neighborhood public school is as good as it can be,” Pudlow said. “We as the state ought to be providing to everyone the opportunity to get a high-quality education.”
One concern among Democrats such as Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach is a provision allowing any business that collects sales tax to redirect its payments to the tax-credit scholarship program.
“You could have a person opposed to the program go to a retailer and the retailer is obligated to collect sales tax,” he said. “An owner of that entity is in favor of the program and uses it as a tax credit. There are concerns about whether that was even constitutional.”
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Richardson said he supports the scholarship program in its current form.
“It was just going too far,” he said. “The program that was being proposed was just so drastically different from the current program.”
He said Step Up for Students is doing a good job but raised another concern about the current system: He would like to see more organizations apply to administer scholarships.
“I understand that some organizations that want to participate have been locked out because of the rigorous requirements,” he said. “That’s something else we should look at.”
Some lawmakers also have said they want to see a provision that would require participating private schools to administer the same standardized tests students in Florida public schools take each year. Private school students, like those at Florida College Academy, take standardized tests different from the FCAT and other state tests.
“The schools should be required to administer the same exams,” Richardson said.
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia echoed that concern, saying more accountability is needed among private schools taking part in the scholarship program.
A testing requirement could resolve that, she said.
“That would address a big issue,” she said. “Everybody should have the same accountability system.”
Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster of the Scripps/Tribune Capital Bureau contributed to this report.