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Legislature Poised For Major Expansion Of Corporate Scholarship Program

More students could get scholarships to go to private school next year under a planned expansion of the state’s corporate tax scholarship program. But those students may also be subjected to state exams.

Florida lawmakers are eyeing the state’s biggest source of revenue to boost private school scholarships for low-income students. The House plan would create the sales tax scholarship program and allow businesses to steer sales tax dollars to fund more scholarships.

“Well, I certainly think it’s a great bill, and I’m so glad the Speaker is behind it and the Senate President is behind it," says Jon East, Vice President for Policy of Step Up For Students, the group administering the corporate tax scholarship program.

The program still has about 25,000 tudents on a waiting list, even after more than 60,000 scholarships were paid out. Right now, money put into the scholarship program is capped at $286 million, but the cap increases every year. Under the proposed expansion, the program could grow over the next five years to spend $874 million annually—that’s enough for roughly 150,000 scholarships, and more than enough to cover both the students currently enrolled in the program and those on the wait list. But East says the potential size of the cap can be misleading:

“You can raise as much money as you want up to the cap, but if students don’t choose the scholarship, the law requires the money be returned to the state treasury.”

For the first time ever, the scholarship program would be open to students who aren’t eligible for free and reduced lunch. A family of four earning up to about $60,000 would become eligible. Partial scholarships based on a sliding scale would be available for higher-income families, but low-income kids would still get first priority. At first blush, the plan sounds good to schools that teach those students. Jason Flom is Learning and Communications Director at Tallahassee’s Cornerstone Learning Community School:

“We’re a private school with a public mission and being able to reach out and provide the type of setting we have to a broader range of students who might not otherwise have access to our program means we’re better able to fulfill our mission.”

But even though he works for a private school – which, full disclosure, underwrites with WFSU/Florida Public Radio -- Flom worries there’s not the same passion for public education, and he worries the voucher expansion may go too far.

"What if some of this money were going to cultivating programs in the public sector? Because we have great schools and there is obviously a demand for an alternative approach to education," he said.

The 15 percent of students at Cornerstone who use the corporate tax scholarship take a nationally-normed test, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. However that test, unlike the ones kids in public schools take, don’t determine whether children are promoted. While Flom says he believes the expansion is a good thing, he’s concerned about a potential hiccup the bill may soon encounter: making scholarship students take the same tests as public school kids:

“Depending on what the expectations are for what students are expected to do, it could increase the hurdle for the number of schools that would accept it.”

Senate President Don Gaetz has said he’d like to see children in the corporate tax scholarship program take the same assessments as public school kids as a way to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison.  That argument is once again being raised by lawmakers like Coral Springs Democratic Representative Jared Moskowitz:

“So our public school students have to take the FCAT...and the students in these schools don’t have to take the FCAT...why the difference?”

If the expansion goes through, the state expects to lose more than $120 million in sales tax revenue over that same five year timeframe. But it also believes those losses are negated by savings generated by students switching from public schools to private ones. House Speaker Will Weatherford had promised what he called a massive expansion of the program—but the size and scope of the expansion has even lawmakers who supported the program in the past saying they’re uncomfortable with the House plan now on the table.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.
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