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Voucher Expansion in the Works in Florida?

Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott is publicly supporting the creation of an ambitious—and perhaps unprecedented —voucher-type program in a state that has long been a laboratory for aggressive school choice plans.

The Republican appears to be intent on pressing forward with an effort to let parents across Florida choose how to spend their share of state funding, according to a speech he delivered before voucher students last week, as reported by the St. Petersburg Times.

The options for parents, Scott said, would apparently include using public money to choose either a public, private, or virtual school. (One newspaper headline: "Vouchers for Everyone?")

There also appears to be some very intense wordsmithing underway in the Sunshine State.

Supporters of the idea have notably avoided calling the idea a "voucher" program, describing it instead as an "education savings account," the newspaper reported. A number of Republican lawmakers (the GOP dominates both chambers in Florida) spoke glowingly of the idea, according to a follow-up story in the paper.

Whether such a program would stand up, legally, remains unclear. Florida's Supreme Court struck down a voucher effort created by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, saying it violated the state's constitution. The state currently operates a pair of other voucher programs: the McKay Scholarship Program, which provides public funding for students with disabilities to attend private schools; and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which offers tax credits to corporations that pay for impoverished students to attend private schools.

But those plans target fairly specific student populations. Would there be eligibility limits on which families could receive public funding to send their children to private schools, under Scott's plan? Or would it truly work as an open market, with upper- as well as lower-income families be able to use taxpayer funds to cover the costs of a private school of their choosing?

A spokeswoman for Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon said he will need to see more details on Scott's proposal before he takes a position. But he is warm to the concept of expanding parents' options, said his spokeswoman, Katie Betta.

"Traditionally, initiatives that have increased school choice are things that the House has supported," Betta told me. "But we haven't seen the specifics."

Florida's legislative session is expected to begin in March, though lawmakers are likely to begin holding committee hearings as soon as next month, Betta said.

Separately, the Republican speaker expects to support a new effort to create financial rewards for teachers based on performance, Betta said. Last legislative session, controversy erupted over lawmakers' approval of a measure, Senate Bill 6, to create a new merit pay system for teachers and phase out teacher tenure and replace it with individual contracts that would not be automatically renewed. Teachers described Senate Bill 6 as a radical overhaul, rammed through with scant input from educators or the public. Whatever new bill emerges, the speaker wants it to go through the committee process, his spokeswoman said.

Cannon wants lawmakers to "be more focused this year, and see how we want we reward our best teachers," Betta said.

Florida's winning, $700 million federal Race to the Top grant promises the creation of a new merit pay and evaluation system, shaped cooperatively with school districts. But Betta said a new teacher evaluation and pay system was something the speaker also "wants to consider at the state level."

The Florida Education Association, which fought Senate Bill 6, was skeptical about lawmakers' claims of taking a more inclusive approach this time around, said a spokesman for the union, Mark Pudlow. "Right now, everyone is playing nice," he said.

"We expect to see the son of Senate Bill 6, or Senate Bill 6-point-one," Pudlow said, "but we don't know what form it will take."

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