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Published in Print: March 28, 2001, as Fla. Debates Expanding Its Voucher Program

Fla. Debates Expanding Its Voucher Program

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Two years after Florida lawmakers approved the first statewide voucher program in the country, the debate over using tax dollars to send students to private or religious schools is raging again in the Sunshine State.

Last week, the House of Representatives voted 63-54 to pass a bill that would provide vouchers of up to $3,000 to students who attend overcrowded schools— defined as those that serve at least 20 percent more students than they were designed to accommodate.

Earlier this month, House members approved another measure by a vote of 71-46 that would allow corporations to redirect up to 75 percent of their corporate income taxes to nonprofit organizations that award scholarships to low-income public school students. Students could receive up to $4,000 through those organizations to cover the cost of tuition at private schools, including those with religious affiliations, among other schooling costs. Similar measures have also been proposed in the Senate.

If approved by the Republican-majority legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, either measure would amount to a significant extension of the narrowly focused program passed two years ago that offers taxpayer-financed tuition to students in schools labeled failing by the state for two out of four years. Currently, only 50 students from two Pensacola elementary schools receive vouchers through the program.

Voucher opponents say the latest round of proposals comes as no surprise.

"This is what's inside the Trojan horse," said Elliot M. Mincberg, the vice president and education policy director for People for the American Way, a Washington-based advocacy organization opposed to vouchers. "If not privatize all schooling, then subsidize private schooling. The first voucher program was just the first step, and there are folks in Florida interested in advancing it as rapidly as they can."

But supporters of both measures say that the proposed programs would provide cost-effective ways to bring school choice to a greater number of families.

"If parents can decide which schools will get the funds for their children's schooling, then schools will do better, both public and private," said Patrick J. Heffernan, the president of the advocacy group Floridians for School Choice.

Dollar-for-Dollar Credits

Observers in the state say the proposal that would allow corporations to receive tax credits for donations toward private school scholarships faces fewer hurdles than the measure tied to overcrowded schools. The House version of the former legislation was approved on March 8, and a similar proposal was approved by the Senate education committee on March 18.

Under the House version, corporations would receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for money donated to nonprofit organizations that award scholarships for low-income students. Organizations receiving such donations could provide private-school-tuition scholarships of up to $4,000, scholarships for home schooling of up to $1,000, and transportation scholarships of up to $500 for students who wished to transfer to different public schools. Students would qualify for the scholarships if they also qualified for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.

Rep. Joe Negron

"It's important to encourage partnerships between our corporate community and the education community, and this bill achieves that objective," said Rep. Joe Negron, a Republican who sponsored the measure.

John F. Kirtley, an entrepreneur who helped found the Children's Scholarship Fund of Tampa Bay—an organization that would stand to benefit from the corporate donations—said that help from the legislature can't happen soon enough. Currently, the Tampa Bay fund pays up to 75 percent of the cost of private school tuition for more than 300 students, but Mr. Kirtley says that more than 12,000 students are on the waiting list for scholarships.

"We need help in getting kids off this waiting list," Mr. Kirtley said. "Private philanthropy can only make a drop in the bucket's difference here. Eventually, money that would otherwise go to taxes has to be involved."

An Unfair Edge?

But opponents of the plan say that it would create an unfair advantage among charities, making it much easier for nonprofit organizations that grant private school scholarships to raise money than it would be for other charitable groups. They also contend that the tax credits could eventually cost the state as much as $1.2 billion each year in lost revenue—an amount equivalent to 75 percent of the annual revenue the state receives through the corporate income tax.

Rep. Bob Henriquez

Rep. Bob Henriquez, a Democrat who opposes the measure, said that while lawmakers would likely limit the amount of tax credits businesses could take to much less than $1.2 billion this year, the legislature would eventually have to allow for higher levels as the pool of students grew from year to year.

"It can only go up," Mr. Henriquez said. "There is an albeit indirect effect on our budget, but it's real."

The proposal to offer vouchers of up to $3,000 to students in overcrowded schools, meanwhile, has proved to be even more controversial. While the measure was approved by the House by a vote of 63-54 last Thursday, it has not yet advanced past the committee level in the Senate.

The plan's supporters say that it would help alleviate the state's growing school crowding problem while potentially saving the state money. The $3,000 cost of a private school voucher, they point out, is far less than the average $4,800 per-pupil cost of educating students in public schools.

But opponents of the plan say the state could end up helping wealthy and middle- class families send their children to private schools, as many of the most crowded schools in the state are high-performing schools in desirable neighborhoods.

"If we pass that bill, we might as well shut down the public schools," said Sen. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Democrat who represents a district encompassing parts of Broward and Dade counties. "Almost my entire Senate district would be eligible for vouchers."

The school board of the 150,000-student Palm Beach County district announced official opposition to the plan last month, saying the vouchers would disproportionately help those students attending the district's top-performing schools, many of whom the board said already have economic advantages over other students.

But Mr. Heffernan of Floridians for School Choice noted that "children don't choose their parents or determine their wealth."

Besides, if a well-to-do family accepted a $3,000 voucher and left a public school, he argued, "they'd be making a donation to the state of Florida."

Vol. 20, Issue 28, Pages 18,22

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