House sends Tax Credit Scholarship bill to governor with strong bipartisan vote

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, April 8, 2010

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House of Representatives voted today to expand and strengthen a scholarship program for low-income schoolchildren, sending the bill to the governor on a vote that included nearly half the Democrats.

The bill, CS/SB 2126, passed 95-23 with 20 of the 43 Democrats present supporting it. It also passed with the majority (11 of the 18 members present) of the House Black Caucus. It passed the Senate March 24 on a  27-11 bipartisan vote with four Democrats. It now heads to the desk of Gov. Charlie Crist, who had called the bill one of his legislative priorities.

“This is a milestone in the empowerment of low-income families in Florida and for the parental choice movement nationwide,” said John Kirtley, chairman of the nonprofit scholarship organization Step Up For Students. “This bill will make the scholarship more accountable and more available, and I’m heartened that we saw such bipartisan support. I think people are recognizing that this program strengthens public education.”

The bill takes two new steps with accountability: requiring individual schools to disclose standardized test score gains if they have at least 30 tested scholarship students, and requiring individual schools to file a financial report by a certified public accountant if they receive at least $250,000 in scholarship revenue. It indexes  the maximum scholarship to 80 percent of the base legislative formula for each public school student — or roughly half the total cost per public school student. (The increase would be phased in over at least six years.) And it increases the cap on tax credits from $118-million to $140-million next year, allowing it to increase by 25 percent in any future year in which 90 percent of the cap is reached.

On the House floor, the debate for and against the bill was carried almost exclusively by Democrats. Rep. Bill Heller, the ranking Democratic member on the House Education Policy Council, voiced his support. “I’ve been to these schools, and I’ve met these parents,” Heller said. “These are good parents. These parents are not opposed to public schools. They’re trying to do what’s right for their child.”

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, also spoke in favor of the bill. “I believe that what this is about is a child – and I don’t care whether that child is black or white or blue or green – and if that child will flourish in a private school setting and should not be denied that opportunity because their parents can’t afford it. I stand in support of this. It’s not a tough call for me.”

The eight-year-old program, which now serves 27,600 K-12 students in 1,020 private schools, provides educational options for students from households whose income meets federal guidelines for free and reduced-price lunch. Companies receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on their corporate income or insurance premium tax liability for money they contribute to state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organizations. Those organizations, in turn, must spend at least 97 percent of that money directly on scholarships.



Academic transparency: Publicly disclose the test gains of any school with at least 30 tax-credit students whose norm-referenced scores are currently counted under law (grades 3-10 with a prior-year score). Thirty also is the threshold for public school grades and for counting the scores of economically disadvantaged children under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Financial accountability: Require a financial report from a certified accountant each year for any school with at least $250,000 in scholarship funds the previous year. The $250,000 threshold is half the level at which the state requires audits for nonprofits receiving state aid.

Scholarship amount: Set the maximum Tax Credit Scholarship, now $3,950, at four-fifths of the state FEFP (Florida Education Finance Program) formula per-student — or roughly half the total cost of a public school student. The change would be made incrementally over at least six years, from 60 to 64 to 68 to 72 to 76 to 80 percent.

Regulatory compliance: Empower the education commissioner to remove or deny from the Tax Credit program any school operator that has a previous history of operating schools in a manner contrary to public health, welfare or safety.

Program cap: Increase the cap on tax-credit contributions from $118-million to $140-million next year and allow it to grow by 25 percent after 90 percent of the cap is reached in future years. The scholarship would remain as the only major state education option with a cap.

Tax Credit Base: Add three new sources to the base of dollar-for-dollar state tax credits: alcoholic beverage excise tax; direct pay self-accrual sales tax, and the oil and gas severance tax.

Scholarship renewals: Reduce the scholarship as household income increases. Students receive a full scholarship as long as income is no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, up to a 75 percent scholarship if income rises above 200 but less than 215 percent, get 50 percent if income is between 215 and 230 percent, and lose eligibility if income exceeds 230 percent. The income requirement to enter the program would remain at no more than 185 percent.