More low-income parents in South Florida will be able to send their children to private schools of their choice under a bill signed into law Friday by Gov. Rick Scott. The bill, SB 850, expands the Florida tax credit scholarship program, which served nearly 60,000 low-income students last year, including 16,606 students in Miami-Dade County, 4,829 in Broward County and 1,812 in Palm Beach County. The program is expected to serve more than 67,000 students this fall.
The deadline to apply for scholarships for the 2014-15 school year is July 15.
Scott approved the bill despite requests for veto from parent groups and the state's teacher union who said the expansion would come at the expense of traditional public schools. His decision to back the legislation could trigger a new round of lawsuits over the state's school choice programs.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich is not for giving vouchers to attend private schools.
“If we have a bad public school we should fix it,” Rich said.
The bill increases the scholarship amount; removes the requirement that students must have been in public school the year prior in order to qualify; and, beginning in 2016, offers partial scholarships to working-class families.
Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the tax credit program, has awarded more than 330,000 scholarships since the Florida Legislature created the program in 2001. Nearly 70 percent of the recipients are Hispanic or African-American.
Students like Danielle Stone are among them.
Danielle, who is of Puerto Rican and African-American descent, used a tax credit scholarship to attend Archbishop Curley Notre Dame High School in Miami. She graduated from there in 2012, and is set to start her freshman year at Barry University this fall. Her story is profiled in a new book, by former Wall Street Journal editor Naomi Schaefer Riley, called Opportunity and Hope: Transforming Children’s Lives Through Scholarships.
The chapter on Danielle concludes: “Danielle hopes someday soon she can repay the kindness that she has received through the Step Up program. Even before she can contribute financially to other kids’ educations, she wants to ‘raise awareness’ about the program. She wants to emphasize to other parents and kids and policy makers that religious schools like hers are not trying to gain new converts, but rather preparing students for all the challenges ahead. ‘This is an education to prepare your child for the future, the things they need in life, as well as in a community, a college, a job, and a family.’”
School choice advocates, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, hailed Scott's decision to approve the bill that had been a top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford.
It was under Bush that Florida's first established the tax credit scholarship program that is being expanded.
It was Bush's first voucher program – which offered them to students in failing schools – that sparked a legal battle that resulted in a state Supreme Court ruling declaring the vouchers unconstitutional.
That ruling did not apply to the tax credit scholarship program, but Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, said the group was now reviewing whether to challenge it in court.
“Instead of investing to make every public school as good as it can be, the Legislature and the governor divert a rapidly growing chunk of taxpayer dollars into these voucher schools and the groups that run them,” McCall said in a statement.
Here are more details about the program changes affecting the scholarship program:
Scholarship amounts: The maximum scholarship this fall will increase to $5,272. That’s 76 percent of the core funding for each student in Florida public school. For the 2015-16 school year, the proportion will increase to 80 percent. And under a change in the just-signed bill, the proportion will increase to 82 percent in the 2016-17 school year.
Eligibility requirements: Under current law, students entering grades 6-12 who want a scholarship must have attended a Florida public school in the previous year, even if they meet the income guidelines. The just-signed bill eliminates that requirement.
Partial scholarships: Currently, scholarships are only available to students whose household incomes qualify them for free- or reduced-price lunch, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty level and about $44,122 for a family of four. But beginning in the 2016-17 school year, partial scholarships on a sliding scale will be available to students whose household incomes are up to 260 percent of poverty, which is $62,010 for a family of four. Priority will still be given to students whose household incomes are below 185 percent of poverty.
The bill signed into law by Scott also makes other changes. It provides more scholarship opportunities to children in foster care, and adds new state oversight to scholarship funding organizations such as Step Up For Students. It also creates a new type of educational choice program, called personal learning scholarship accounts, for K-12 students with one of eight disabilities: autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, intellectual disability, Prader-Will syndrome, Spina bifida, high-risk child or Williams syndrome.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.