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    Bills tie scholarships, tax breaks

    Corporations could get dollar-for-dollar breaks for donations to send poor kids to private schools.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- The Republican-controlled Legislature is on the verge of approving a bill that would offer companies a tax break to send thousands of poor children to private schools.

    The measure, which passed the Senate 25-14, would give companies dollar-for-dollar credit for donations to non-profit scholarship funds. To be eligible for scholarships worth up to $3,500, children would have to qualify for free or reduced lunches.

    A slightly different version passed the House last month, and now the two chambers must work out the differences. A spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush said he has not yet taken a position on the measure.

    The Senate bill would cap the tax breaks at $50-million, while the House version doesn't limit them. Critics -- mostly Democrats and the teachers' unions -- call the legislation another form of vouchers that would drain money from public schools and could create "cottage industries" of private schools.

    "This bill really is very detrimental and, in my opinion, is very un-American," said state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee.

    Supporters disagree. State Sen. Ken Pruitt, the bill's sponsor, said it will foster public-private partnerships that will give low-income parents the chance to rescue their children from a bad public school.

    "It's un-American to have our children and their parents stuck in a system that is not showing results," Pruitt said. That goes for not working with the private sector, too, the Port St. Lucie Republican added.

    "It is un-American to say we don't want your money" to corporations willing to help students, he said.

    How many children could be eligible? Under the current voucher system, which a trial judge last year ruled unconstitutional, only students from failing schools could get the publicly funded vouchers to attend a private school.

    But the bill approved Thursday says simply that the student must qualify for the free or reduced-price federal lunch programs, the standard used to define poor children.

    In Pinellas County, about 44 percent of all elementary students quality for the program. In Hillsborough County that number is almost 57 percent. In Citrus and Pasco counties, half the elementary students would quality, with 48 percent of students qualifying in Hernando County, according to the Florida Department of Education.

    Other states, including Arizona, Minnesota and Illinois, already have tuition tax credits. In the fall of 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected two appeals challenging Arizona's law, which was enacted four years ago.

    Opponents say the credits would cut into donations to education foundations. "We keep hearing about choice as an operative word in education. What about the choice they (companies) should have to get that same credit for public schools," said state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton.

    "But that's not what happening here. There is no choice."

    But proponents disagree. They say the amounts of the proposed vouchers are less than what the state gives the districts per child, so schools come out ahead.

    State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said she has seen college students, many minorities and from low-income families, read at a grade-school level.

    "If we're ever going to give the opportunity to students to excel, this is the way to do it," Brown-Waite said.

    Yesterday, Senate Republicans beat back an attempt by Democrats to expand the tax credit to public schools.

    "Why are you afraid to give the same benefit to the public school foundation that you want to give to the private school foundation," state Sen. Buddy Dyer, D-Orlando, asked during Wednesday's hearing.

    Pruitt's answer was that it would negate the purpose of his bill, which is to give opportunities to students who aren't doing well in public school but can't afford private school.

    He reiterated that Thursday.

    "This is not an indictment of the public school system," Pruitt said.

    - Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

    How local senators voted

    YES:

    Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville

    Anna P. Cowin, R-Leesburg

    Victor Crist, R-Tampa

    Tom Lee, R-Brandon

    Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor

    Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg

    Don Sullivan, R-St. Seminole

    * * *

    NO:

    Les Miller, D-Tampa

    Richard Mitchell, D-Jasper

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