Scott Team Wants Vouchers, Merit Pay

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

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, December 21, 2010 --

Florida schools should enact a number of changes championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, including expanding school choice, eliminating teacher job protection and basing educators’ pay on student performance, members of Gov.-elect Rick Scott’s transition team said Tuesday.

The governor-elect’s education transition team released briefing documents of recommendations that it was making to the incoming governor, who will take office in two weeks. The documents included ideas that have been tossed around by the Legislature for years, but have failed to gain traction or have been knocked down by the Florida Supreme Court.
One of the biggest priorities for elementary and high school education is letting children go to any school they want to, whether it be public, private, a charter or virtual school – and possibly even a school in another county’s school district. Scott, throughout the campaign, maintained his support for school choice efforts and also appeared recently with advocates for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which sends low income students to private schools.

The biggest issue is how to pay for it. Scott has proposed eliminating the corporate income tax, which funds the scholarship program. Corporations who give donations to the scholarship are given a tax credit. Scott’s team’s solution is to find a “constitutionally-defensible” funding source to continue and expand the program. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down Bush’s statewide voucher program creating an obstacle for school choice advocates.

One option being forwarded by Bush’s education foundation is an education savings account that allows parents to 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.

Florida university system chancellor Frank Brogan, who is a former state education commissioner and school principal, told reporters last week that many people in the school system would see the school choice expansion as an “assault” on public education, but defended the transition team’s rudimentary plans, saying it was simply an “opportunity” for parents and children to go to better schools.

Brogan, who served as Bush’s lieutenant governor and is also on Scott’s transition team, said there was no way to know, however, it if a plan could be upheld in court.

“But I do believe the reality of the thing is it will be court tested if it is passed and signed into law,” he said.

Another major component of the Scott transition team’s proposal is a merit pay system for teachers that would base half of what teachers make on student performance. The issue was a major part of last spring’s legislative debate in which the Republican-led Legislature passed a merit pay bill only to have it vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Key lawmakers have already said that the bill will be reintroduced this coming spring with some changes from last year’s proposal. A draft is already being circulated by Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and foundation director Patricia Levesque briefed the Senate Prek-12 Education committee on details this past month.

Levesque is the chairwoman of Scott’s education transition team.

“The transition team was a very wide variety of individuals from a teacher all the way to an education advocate,” said Bush foundation spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof. “And the report, we find most encouraging because it continues talking about the bold reforms he talked about on the campaign trail.”

A state teachers’ union spokesman said the organization would withhold comment until union officials can review the plan in more detail.

The report also contained several other suggestions including a broad, but still vague idea for developing a new funding system for public schools.

The transition team also suggests investing in mentoring initiatives, recruiting teachers in science and math and developing an autonomous charter school authorization body.

In higher education, the team suggested full support of the university system’s effort to ramp up degree production and increased emphasis on science and math. It also suggested a look at changes to the Bright Futures Scholarship program, including upping the SAT score requirement.


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