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Clash brewing over bid to revive vouchers

April 3, 2014

By Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

The sponsor of a Senate measure that would help parents pay for education services for disabled children suggested Wednesday that she was not interested in adding an expansion of the state’s de facto voucher program to the bill.

The comments by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, could indicate trouble for a last-ditch effort by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, to push through sweeping changes to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program before his tenure as speaker ends.

Expanding the program — by increasing the amount of money it is able to raise and spend annually and allowing more students to qualify for the vouchers — had been one of the more ambitious measures in the joint House-Senate “work plan” that Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, unveiled before the session.

But the proposal appeared to collapse two weeks ago, when Senate leaders pulled their version of the bill and all but pronounced it dead for the year. Last week, House leaders tacked the voucher expansion onto a new counterpart (HB 7167) to Stargel’s bill.

“You’ve seen this process work,” Stargel said Wednesday after her measure (SB 1512) passed its third committee. “Things happen, and maneuvers happen all the time. I can tell you at this point it’s not my will to make this be the vehicle for the Tax Credit Scholarship program.”

House leaders say the bills are a natural fit for each other, given that both would expand options for parents. Talking to reporters after a House debate on the budget Wednesday, Weatherford wouldn’t directly answer whether he would consider Stargel’s personal learning accounts bill without the voucher expansion attached.

“We believe in choice for everybody,” he said. “We believe in choice for children with disabilities. We believe in choice for students who are stuck in failing schools. We believe in choice for people who come from lower socioeconomic status households. We believe in choice. And that’s why we put the bills together.”

Under the voucher program, corporations contribute money to help send children to private schools and receive tax credits for the contributions.

Meanwhile, the version of Stargel’s bill that passed through the Senate Education Appropriations Committee featured significant changes of its own. Originally, the program was going to be housed in the Department of Education; the new version would move it to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. It would also be available to more students.

At least one supporter of the bill was concerned about moving the program to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which has only recently reined in budget deficits in its existing programs.

”This is from an agency that historically, as far as I’m aware, has had significant trouble being able to do the functions that it is presently doing,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

And Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat who was the lone vote against the bill, said the measure was moving too quickly and should go to a health care committee now that it deals with the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

“To do it right now seems a little bit irresponsible,” Bullard said.

The full Appropriations Committee still has to approve the measure before it heads to the Senate floor.

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