A bill significantly expanding Florida’s school voucher program is headed for the House floor, even though a similar proposal was withdrawn from the Senate, leading many to believe the issue was dead for this session. A Friday committee hearing revived a familiar—and heated—debate on education and religion.
Republican supporters want to increase funding to the state’s corporate tax scholarship program, they say, for parents who feel public school has failed their children—parents like Tallahassee mother of five Alyson Hochstedler.
“My 11-year-old son, that’s Gant, spent three years at an A-rated public school right down the street, which we love for our younger son. But he experienced bullying there as well for three years,” she testified before the Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
Hochstedler says the harassment escalated to a breaking point in fifth grade.
“We had had someone punch him in the jaw in the cafeteria as well as then another girl choked him to try and get the last chip. It just wasn’t working for us,” she says.
Hochstedler says that’s why she wants to use corporate tax scholarship money, or vouchers, to send her son to the private Christ Classical Academy, where she struggles to afford the tuition.
“We know God will supply, but maybe it’s through Step Up For Students,” she says.
Step Up for Students is the nonprofit that administers the scholarship program. The bill now heading to the full House would tack on voucher funding in excess of an existing 15 percent annual increase. The measure also expands eligibility to middle-class families by more than doubling the qualifying family income to just under $60,000.
Committee Chairman Erik Fresen (R-Miami) says more funding is needed to address growing demand. But Democrats, like Rep. Larry Lee (D- Fort Pierce), say that money should go toward improving public schools.
“And I just believe within my heart that we can do more,” Lee says. “But we’re giving up. We’re giving up too easy.”
Lee says the program was originally intended to help only the poorest students escape failing schools.
“The Bible tells us the poor will always be with us,” he told the committee.
While Lee invoked the Bible to make his argument, several of the bill’s opponents bemoaned that its passage could expand the use of public taxpayer money to fund religious education. And Rep. Karen Castor Dentel (D- Maitland), a teacher herself, says she’s seen several public school students go to a private school for a couple of years and come back, only to be further behind their classmates than when they left. Castor Dentel also chastised Fresen for attaching the voucher bill to a stand-alone measure changing the scholarship program for students with disabilities.
“And I think putting these two voucher programs together is simply a Hail Mary,” she said. “And I urge you all to vote against this bill.”
Fresen fired back, accusing Democrats of being intellectually dishonest by supporting public scholarship funding only when it goes to private preschools and universities.
“But somehow, God forbid a public dollar in the K-12 system be utilized by a parent’s choice,” he said.
During the debate, God wasn’t far from the mind of Rep. Charlie Stone (R-Ocala), either. He says parents should have another place to turn because public schools are getting worse.
“We’ve removed God out of the public school system for the most part. I don’t know that I can agree with that policy. We’ve decreased the amount of discipline that is allowed in the school system. Well I don’t believe that’s a really good policy either. And I think we’re seeing the results of it in some of the bullying,” he says.
If the measure passes the full House, Democrats say it won’t be with their party’s support.