Florida House subcommittee passes school voucher expansion bill

04/08/11 Kate Bradshaw
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A state house subcommittee passed a bill expanding school vouchers to an additional 50,000 Florida students. Opponents fear broadening eligibility criteria for the state-funded McKay Scholarship would weaken the program.

The McKay Scholarship Program grants school choice to students with cognitive or sensory disabilities like hearing impairment, dyslexia, or autism. It pays for qualifying students to attend a private or public school outside their district. The new bill would extend eligibility to students with physical conditions that may curb limit their ability to learn in certain settings. Republican Miami Representative Ana Logan used the example of students with asthma in making the case for the bill.

"I have a friend of mine who's child has very severe asthma and to be around anyone with perfume or anyone that has a dog as a pet or anything like that could endanger his life. His public school can try to make the accomodations but they may not be able. There may be another school that is specifically catering to kids that have asthma. Making sure that the students don't wear perfume and things like that."

Bill sponsor Mike Bileca, a West Miami Republican, said the program fosters learning among disabled students who may face barriers like harassment by other students in their home district. He said statistics tell a story suggesting all impaired children could benefit from the system.

"Before some of these children had the McKay scholarships they were asked how often were they bothered or assaulted in the school and it was 47 percent. After McKay it was down to 5 percent."

A reported 6 percent of students now eligible for the McKay Scholarship actually participate. Patricia Levesque, Executive Director of Foundation for Florida’s Future, said she sees no reason the newly eligible students would be any different. If the 50,000 newly eligible students follow the same pattern, the number of recipients would increase by around 3,000. McKay added that despite letting more students access the funds, the program would be revenue neutral.

"The money we were already paying for them gets to follow those children to wherever they choose to go."

She said a side benefit is that parents and students having difficulties with a particular school would be less likely to bog things down if they could just choose another one.

"Parents who are really unsatisfied with where they are, they make the school district principal and teachers lives very difficult."

Not everyone championed the expansion. Orlando Democrat Geraldine Thompson said broader eligibility criteria would weaken the program.

"A student who has asthma is very different from a student who can't speak. A student who has diabetes is very different from a student who can't see or a student who can't hear. This bill would put them all into the same category for the purposes of expanding vouchers."

She added that new criteria would open the system up to new abuses. Pompano Beach Democrat Gwendolyn Clark-Reed said letting more students access the school choice program would go against the initial intent of the program.

"I think that when the criteria was set for the program it was done with the intention that this program would only serve a very, very, strict population."

Though increasing access to school vouchers has been a pet project of Republicans in the Florida Legislature, the measure passed committee with some Democratic support. Parkland Democrat Marty Kiar said he believes all physically and cognitively challenged students should have access to the schools that would best accommodate their needs, so he gave the bill a tentative thumbs-up.

"When it gets to the floor, as I learn a little more about this, if I come to the determination that this bill could potentially jeopardize the current McKay scholarship, and hurt every single child that is getting the education they currently are getting and deserve, at that time I am going to vote against it."

The bill, HB 1329, now has to pass the House Education Committee before the full House can vote on it.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the 2011 Legislative session

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