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Crist Signs Major Voucher Program Expansion

A movement to massively expand a statewide voucher program that rewards businesses for paying private school tuition became law Thursday with the signature of Gov. Charlie Crist.

The measure, SB 2126, expands the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, a program that that sends low-income Florida students to private school. The new law would allow the program, currently capped at $118 million in aggregate, to keep expanding as more donations flow in.

“It matches our students with the right school,” Crist said prior to signing the bill.

The program is funded by private companies that get a corporate tax credit in return for a donation. Currently, more than 27,000 students receive a $3,950 scholarship. Under the new law, the $118 million cap expands to $140 million this year, and then allows it to expand by 25 percent whenever the donations reach 90 percent of the cap. The measure also provides additional tax credits for the program, adding oil and gas severance taxes, beverage taxes on alcohol and other types of business taxes.

The goal is to increase the amount of students who receive the scholarship and boost the individual award amount, so that it eventually reaches 80 percent of the state allocation for per pupil spending, which is currently at about $6,866 per student.

Vouchers have a long, contentious history in Florida. Former Gov. Jeb Bush pushed them during his tenure in the governor's office, but his initial state voucher program was struck down by the courts. Vouchers still remain divisive, but they have gained more acceptance in recent years.

Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, who was initially against the program, flipped his position over the years after learning that 78 students in his district received the scholarship and talking to them about their choice.

“If it helps whatever that little guy or gal is, that's the bottom line for me,” Heller said.

Opponents of expanding the corporate tax credit vouchers argue that the program takes tax money away from public schools, while supporters say that it actually saves the state money because the amount the public schools spend per pupil is higher than the voucher tax credit. A legislative analysis of the measure predicted there would be a $31 million hit on the state budget for fiscal year 2010-2011, with a recurring impact on general revenue of $228.8 million.
Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state teachers' union, said it was a poor choice to spend money helping out private schools when public schools have seen cuts over the past several years.

“I think we ought to concern ourselves with the public school system and ensure every neighborhood school is the best school and the state's not funneling money to private entities with no accountability,” he said.
Signing the bill put Crist on the same side as his Republican colleagues in the Legislature on a major piece of legislation, which has been infrequent this year. Crist has vetoed two major priorities of legislative Republicans, one a campaign finance measure and the other a highly controversial teacher merit pay bill.

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