School Choice Plan Emerging

By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida
By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, December 14, 2010 --

As Governor-elect Rick Scott prepares to take office in a few weeks, an aide to Gov. Jeb Bush who also serves on Scott’s transition team is preparing a plan that would give Florida students public dollars to pay for private or virtual school, tutoring or a college prepaid plan.

Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education is still formalizing its 2011 legislative agenda, foundation spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said. But foundation executive director Patricia Levesque, a longtime Bush associate, has shared with Scott the foundation’s outline of potential legislation that would create what is being called an “education savings account.”

The concept allows parents to create a savings account for their children in which they can request and receive funds equal to 85 percent of what the state earmarks for students in the public system. Currently, the state’s per pupil funding rate is $6,843.

The money could be used for private school tuition and fees, online “virtual” school, tutoring, books and tuition for dual enrollment programs, textbooks or curriculum for a home schooling program or contributions to a child’s higher education savings plan.

Scott campaigned on a pro school choice platform and appeared at a rally in Tampa last week for the state’s largest voucher program, which sends more than 30,000 low-income students to private schools through a corporate tax credit program. He has said that he wants to expand the program, but has not specifically noted a funding source to do that.

“He’s open to anything that will give parents more choice in picking the best education for their children,” said Scott spokesman Trey Stapleton. “And right now he’s really looking at the options. “

Bush’s foundation has been behind several education reform policies over the past few years, notably a measure last spring to partially base teacher pay on standardized test scores. Bush, in particular, was a huge proponent of vouchers during his time as governor, creating a program that allowed students in failing schools to attend private ones using state dollars. But the state Supreme Court ruled the program ran afoul of a constitutional provision requiring a uniform public school system. The high court, however, let the corporate tax credit voucher program stand.

The Florida Education Association, which is frequently on the opposite side of the foundation on education issues, called the education savings account plan “vouchers for all” and a spokesman said the statewide teachers’ union would have some real problems if the issue is turned into significant legislation.

“It kind of seems to me a little bit at odds with the paramount duty of the state to provide a high quality education and I think the Supreme Court has kind of ruled on that, but I’m not a constitutional lawyer,” said FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow.

Emhof said that there is currently no draft legislation, and any potential legislative sponsor has not yet been identified.

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