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Bill Would Make Thousands More Low-Income Florida Students Eligible for Scholarships

March 11, 2014 - 7:00pm

Thousands more Florida students from low-income families could have access to private schools if lawmakers approve a bill to expand the states tax-credit scholarship program.

The bill allows the scholarship amount to increase from 72 percent to 84 percent of the states per-pupil education funding. It also expands eligibility to students whose families earn up to 200 percent of the poverty level. In addition, if families earn between 200 percent and 260 percent of the poverty level, students qualify for a half scholarship.

Driving the legislation, according to William Mattox, resident fellow at the James Madison Institute, is a desire to get students off the waiting list and into the schools their parents choose.

Thats the impetus for everything, Mattox said. Weve got a really great program thats working really well that a lot of people want to take advantage of, and a lot of low-income students trapped in bad schools are being shut out. We want to make it possible for them to become eligible for these scholarships so they can go to better schools.

This year Step Up for Students had to stop awarding scholarships while 34,000 families were still working on their applications, said Patrick Gibbons, public affairs manager at SUFS, the scholarship-granting program.

SUFS gives scholarships of up to $4,800 to students living at or below the poverty level. This year, almost 60,000 students are participating at about 1,400 schools.

The program is allowed to grow 25 percent annually if it reaches a fundraising target -- so even without the bill, 10,000 more students can be served next year. The proposed bill allows for accelerated growth for four years. If it passes, about 16,000 more students can be served next year, Gibbons said.

Florida law allows corporations to donate to the scholarship fund in lieu of paying corporate taxes. The bill would allow retail outlets and others paying sales taxes to donate to the scholarship fund in lieu of paying a portion of their sales taxes.

Basically, its expanding the pool of money the state is collecting for these scholarships, Mattox said.

The state House and Senate are considering similar bills. If both pass, the two houses will work toward a compromise. The final bill, reflecting the compromises, will then go to the governor for consideration.

The main difference between the bills pertains to testing.

Scholarship students are required to take a state-approved test, but not necessarily the Florida Comprehensive Assessment. The House bill requires no changes to the current testing requirements. Senate President Don Gaetz has said he wants to require that all scholarship students take the FCAT.

Many people are balking at that idea, Mattox said. Theyre saying, if these students are going to end up being tested with the state test, theres going to be a tendency on the part of a lot of these schools to bend the curriculum to the same way the district schools are covering, and the distinctiveness of these private schools will be lost, and the rationale for having a scholarship program will be undermined.

Tax credit scholarships can be a better school-choice option for states where voucher programs are a tough sell, said Richard Komer, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice. But other states, including Florida, dont have state income taxes or dont allow for tax credits, making vouchers a better option for those states, he said.

In some states, the supreme courts have overread their (constitutional) language and extended it beyond not letting it fund Catholic schools to not funding students and giving them a choice in going anywhere, Komer said. In those states, a general workaround is to do (school choice) as a tax credit, but thats dependent on whether they have a state income tax, whether they allow tax credits, a whole range of things.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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