Local News

School voucher bills moving though House, Senate

— No one, not Deputy Superintendent Rodney Hollinger nor Walker Memorial Academy Treasurer Teresa Gonzalez, knows how many students are enrolled in Highlands County’s eight private schools. Even the state Department of Education doesn’t track the number.

So no one knows how many students or parents will be affected by school voucher legislation, which is back on the move in the Senate after the Appropriations Committee approved a bill on Tuesday.

The Tax Credit Scholarship Program, an 11th-hour amendment sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, would change accountability measures for private schools that accept the vouchers. Galvano represents southern Highlands County.

Galvano’s suggestion is credited with reviving SB 1512 after the Senate shelved his SB 1620 on March 20. Since then, the House progressively watered down its proposal so much that the Senate largely would not budge. The House plan would allow partial scholarships for families of four earning up to $62,010, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current limit of $43,568.

The Galvano amendment would require Florida State University’s Learning System Institute to measure scholarship students’ performance on “national” tests.

“It’s an effort to perhaps have further discussions on the issue,” Galvano told the News Service of Florida.

At Walker Memorial Academy in Avon Park, where students also come from Polk and Hardee counties, a third of the 204 pupils receive up to $4,880 from vouchers, said Treasurer Teresa Gonzalez. Tuition is lower than the voucher maximum for students who haven’t reached the fifth grade.

The mother of two children herself, Gonzalez is a voucher supporter.

“Mine came through before vouchers came into place,” she said. “Because they had never attended public school, they could not qualify.”

How much would her family have saved? About $3,500 per year times 12 years times two children — an estimated $84,000. That’s a lot, she agreed, for an administrator at a small Seventh-day Adventist school with a non-denominational tilt.

SB 1512 by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would help parents who have children with disabilities pay for educational services. The Appropriations Committee approved 14-3.

Galvano, who chairs the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, has voted yes on the bill, as did Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring. Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, voted no the first eight times on amendments to a similar educational choice bill, HB 7167. He voted yes — along with the House majority — on the final amendment. None of the three legislators responded to interview requests before Highlands Today’s Wednesday deadline.

Stargel welcomed Galvano’s amendment: “I think the ultimate goal of this bill is we want all of our children to be successful, we want all of our children to have opportunities and for those parents to be able to determine what opportunity is best for their child.”

Some Democrats opposed the combined legislation because of the voucher provision. “It breaks my heart to have to vote against this bill,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

The McKay Scholarship is not based on income, Gonzalez said, and disabled children don’t have to attend public school first. Hollinger said 40 Highland County students accept vouchers from the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, created in 1999 for eligible students with intellectual, speech, language, hearing visual, sensory, emotional or behavioral impairments to attend public or private schools.

Mirroring a House maneuver, Galvano’s language dealing with the voucher system — known as the Tax Credit Scholarship Program because businesses donate to the program in return for tax credits — would be added to SB 1512.

Private school students would not be required to take the FCAT and other tests that public schoolchildren take — a non-starter in the House, where some members objected that administering those tests at private schools could mean dictating curriculum.

Even so, Gonzalez said, Walker Memorial children in grades 3-9 take the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Grades 9 and above are pre-tested for the SAT, and grades 11 and 12 take the SAT or ACT, depending on the student and his or her college choice.

Even with Galvano’s amendment, the bills would still be far apart. The Senate would expand eligibility to foster children, and would essentially keep current eligibility standards, capped at an annual income of $43,568 for a family of four. The House plan would allow partial scholarships for families of the same size earning up to $62,010.

By law, the Florida Legislature must adjourn on May 2.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story