TALLAHASSEE — A proposal to expand the state’s private school voucher program cleared its latest panel on a party-line vote Tuesday after a standing-room only meeting packed with pastors, public school advocates and private school students.
The Education Choice and Innovation subcommittee voted 9-4 to advance the bill (HB 7099) that opponents said funneled money away from public education and proponents said gave second chances to kids whom public schools have failed.
More than 100 people showed up to the crowded but orderly meeting room to support or oppose the measure. Many wore the orange T-shirts of Step Up for Students, the nonprofit that hands out most vouchers in Florida.
After doorkeepers had occupancy code concerns, dozens of others – some of whom had driven hours to testify – had to stand in the House Office Building’s hallway.
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship helps children from lower-income families attend private schools—roughly four out of five of the schools offer a religious-based curriculum. Companies who contribute money for scholarships get a corresponding tax credit.
The money doesn’t go directly from government to schools, but goes to parents through scholarship funding organizations such as Step Up.
The bill would expand the program’s participation to include retailers and others who collect sales tax. It also would allow more students to become eligible for full or partial vouchers, including those whose families earn a little more money.
Florida Education Association vice president Joanne McCall blasted the proposal before the meeting in a news release.
“Vouchers do not reduce public education costs,” said McCall, whose union has more than 140,000 members. “Actually, they increase costs, by requiring taxpayers to fund two school systems: one public and one private. Let’s keep public money in public schools.”
A number of black South Florida clergy spoke against the bill, including JoAnn Brookins, pastor of Carol City United Methodist Church.
Brooks said she had to raise both her children and those of her late brothers. The public schools were understanding and helpful, she said.
“Any money that is allocated to the public school system should go to the public school system and not diverted or allocated anywhere else,” Brookins said.
Others, like Curtis Thomas of Florida City’s Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, spoke in favor of the legislation.
“The public school is not always the best environment for certain children,” he told the panel. “Just because you’re poor does not mean you should not have an option.”
Despite proponents noting that voucher beneficiaries come largely from Democratic families, Democrats argued against the measure, with Republicans for it.
Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to attach an amendment requiring voucher schools to give students the same standardized tests used in public schools.
“I am totally against us changing the ball game in the middle of it,” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. “We cannot continue to pour money into one entity while another entity suffers, and that’s our public schools.”
But Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, said vouchers “help those who want to help themselves.”
The bill provides “opportunities for hard-working families to make educational choices to optimize their children’s success,” he said.
Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, said the bill “doesn’t stop anyone from going to a public school.”
“The issue is, do we want to give people a choice?” he said. “If you’re voting against the bill, you’re saying you don’t want families to have a choice and that you feel that … government knows better.”
Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, reminded the audience that President Obama’s children are in private school in Washington. Malia and Sasha Obama attend the prestigious Sidwell Friends School.
The House bill is headed for the floor. A Senate companion (SB 1620), sponsored by Republican Bill Galvano of Bradenton, has not yet had a hearing.
How to sound off
HB 7099/SB 1620 would expand the state’s voucher system for private schools by using sales tax money.
To find and contact your own senator or representative, visit www.leg.state.fl.us. You’ll also find helpful tips at the Information Center there.