Senate makes end run on voucher ban

Students at worst public schools could get private school scholarships.

Published May 4, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Students in failing public schools would be eligible for a private school voucher program currently dedicated to low-income students, under a bill that passed the Senate on Thursday.

The bipartisan vote came at the urging of Senate majority leader and longtime voucher proponent Daniel Webster.

If approved by the House today, the change would revive an element of the Opportunity Scholarships voucher program adopted eight years ago as part of then-Gov. Jeb Bush's education overhaul.

The Florida Supreme Court last year struck down the program as unconstitutional, on the grounds it diverted state dollars meant for public education into private schools, some of which were religious.

The court concluded in Bush vs. Holmes that the state cannot establish an education system other than free public schools.

The bill that passed the Senate Thursday would allow students in schools rated "F" two years in a row to apply for private-school scholarships of between $3, 750 and $4, 250 through the corporate income tax credit program.

Corporations donate millions each year to the program in exchange for tax credits.

The tax credit program has never been challenged in court. Neither has the McKay Scholarship program, which gives vouchers to disabled students. The Opportunity Scholarship program was the state's smallest, with fewer than 800 enrolled.

Webster said F-school students could apply for the vouchers regardless of family income, though he pointed out that students in the state's failing schools are predominantly poor.

More than 16, 000 students, all of them low-income enough to qualify for the federal government's free and reduced cost lunch program, now participate in the corporate income tax credit program. About the same number use McKay Scholarships.

Ronald Meyer, an attorney for the Florida Education Association, said adding failing-schools students to the corporate income tax credit program "defies the idea of helping truly needy, poverty-level children" and could open the state's two voucher programs to a legal challenge.

But the teachers union and voucher opponents were most opposed to a related proposal that died Thursday in the Senate.

Webster proposed putting all corporate income tax revenue, about $2.5-billion a year, into a trust fund that could be used for everything "but education."

He said putting tax money into a trust fund would protect it from constitutional challenge.

Ultimately, Webster withdrew his bill from a floor vote because he knew he didn't have the 24 votes needed.