An attempt to revive a sweeping expansion of the state's de facto voucher system passed a House subcommittee on a party-line vote Friday, setting up a potential showdown with the Senate over school choice legislation.
The House Education Appropriations Subcommittee voted 8-4 to introduce the measure (PCB EDAS 14-03), which would bind together a program aimed at students with disabilities and the voucher expansion. Senate leaders last week pulled their counterpart to the House voucher bill, but the measure for students with disabilities remains alive.
"I wanted to make sure that we gave what I think are two incredibly necessary pieces of legislation the hope of survival in the session," said Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who chairs the subcommittee and introduced the bill.
The House move injected legislative brinksmanship to the debate about one of House Speaker Will Weatherford's top priorities. Bills establishing a "Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program," which would reimburse parents for some educational services for children with disabilities, have been moving on both sides of the Capitol.
The Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee is set to hear its version of the personal learning accounts bill (SB 1512) on Wednesday.
But Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told reporters that he wasn't trying to jam the Senate by attaching the two measures.
"They both give parents choice," he said. "There's a good marriage there. And we think that the Senate will hopefully give another look at the (voucher) issue."
The Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, ripped the move to combine the two measures during comments at the subcommittee meeting Friday.
"While we have concerns about the personal learning accounts for children with disabilities, I have to say, as a teacher who taught disabled students daily, that this attempt to salvage the expansion of the ... voucher program by attaching it to this bill is disingenuous to the public and those of us who have dedicated our lives to serving disabled students," said FEA Vice President Joanne McCall.
Fresen's new bill drops one of the most controversial elements of the original voucher measure, which would have allowed retailers to funnel some of their sales-tax collections into the program. The system is now funded largely by donations from corporations, which then get credit against corporate-income taxes, insurance-premium taxes and similar charges.
The legislation would still increase a cap on the program's fundraising by $30 million beyond the increase currently allowed in law for the next five years.
The value of each voucher would increase, and middle-class families would qualify for partial scholarships. For example, a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year would be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit.
On Friday, Democrats argued that the overhaul fundamentally changes the nature of the program.
"The core mission was to provide these corporate tax scholarships for low-income families," said Rep. Dwayne Taylor of Daytona Beach, the subcommittee's top Democrat. "It's now deviated from that to families who are able to pay for their private educations."
The reach of the House bill has allowed Democrats to overcome their traditional divisions on the voucher issue. They voted this week to take a caucus position against the bill, largely binding members to oppose the expansion.
Rep. Mark Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat who will lead the caucus after the 2014 elections, and two other prominent House Democrats sat in on the meeting Friday despite not being on the subcommittee.
Fresen lashed out at those opposing the bill, saying public money is sent to private organizations for preschool and higher education.
"But somehow, God forbid a public dollar in the K-12 system be utilized by a parent's choice to educate a child that has a specific need or a specific condition or just a specific desire to be outside of the system that was prescribed to it by the public," he said.